6 Ways Climate Change May Affect Your Health
Learn what's coming and how you can keep yourself and loved ones safe
There’s no question climate change (formerly known as global warming) is undermining the health of the planet. Now scientists warn that climate change also is harming the health of the planet's inhabitants.
The recent National Climate Assessment (NCA) warns that the upsurge in wildfires, diseases carried by insects and pests and natural disasters like floods and hurricanes is a serious threat to human health and well-being.
Think of it as a stealth assault on all fronts. Unlike a single pollutant such as lead or ozone, “climate change cuts across many exposure pathways to affect our health,” says Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, a professor and director of Global Environmental Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and chairman of the NCA’s health panel of more than 300 experts.
Here’s a quick look at health hazards the NCA and federal health agencies say climate change may bring about and how experts say you can protect yourself and your loved ones.
More extreme heat
Deaths caused by heat waves are not a recent phenomenon. Large cities, including St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati, have seen spikes in deaths with prolonged hot weather. People have died from heat stroke, as well as heart, kidney and respiratory failure. Scientists predict that with climate change, heat waves will become hotter, longer and more frequent and will cause more deaths among seniors.
What you can do now: Don’t overexert yourself outdoors in extreme heat. Be aware that older people, those with a chronic illness and babies are especially vulnerable in high temperatures. If a super hot day is in the forecast, make sure friends and loved ones who could be at risk stay indoors, preferably in an air-conditioned space.
More bizarre weather
Scientists predict climate change will continue to bring about “global weirding” — extreme or bizarre weather, particularly intense rainfall with a possibility of flooding, even in areas that have never flooded before, and greater frequency of drought in others. Flooding already is the second deadliest weather-related hazard in the United States, responsible for an average of nearly 100 deaths a year. Floodwaters also usher in an increased risk of waterborne diseases.
What you can do now: Pay attention to weather reports. During and after a heavy rainfall, stay away from flood-prone areas. Don’t try to walk or drive through flooded roadways. If floodwaters trap you in your home, retreat to a top floor or roof. If you come in contact with flood waters, wash with soap and clean water.
More diseases spread by pests and pathogens
In Minnesota, two children have died from a brain-destroying infection after swimming in a lake. The infection, caused by the warm-water amoeba Naegleria fowleri, had never been seen north of Missouri before 2010.
As the climate heats up, pathogens and disease-carrying pests such as mosquitoes and ticks are expected to move into new areas. Across much of the world, malaria (carried by mosquitoes) is expanding to new regions. In North America, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, plague and tularemia (also known as deer fly fever) likely will show up in new territories. As rising temperatures warm seawater, the dangerous ocean bacterium Vibrio vulnificus, also is expanding its reach. In addition, federal health officials say that valley fever, a potentially deadly fungal infection seen mostly in the Southwest and spread by spores in dust and soil, is on the rise due to climate change and drought.
What you can do now: Become familiar with pest-borne diseases in your area, especially if you spend a lot of time outside. Protect yourself from mosquitoes with bug spray and long sleeves. To ward off ticks, wear long sleeves and tuck your pant legs into socks or boots. Once you get home, change clothes and check yourself thoroughly. Unless you have an open wound, swimming in warm seawater probably isn't a problem. But if you have even a small cut, stay out of the ocean until it heals. To protect yourself from valley fever, avoid dust storms (the University of Arizona has developed a smartphone app to warn people when they’re coming). Experts also recommend turning on the air conditioning in the car when driving through desert areas to keep dust out and avoiding desert soil whenever possible.
Increased air pollution and ground-level ozone
Climate change is expected to increase ground-level ozone and, in some places, particulate matter air pollution. Ground-level ozone (a component of smog) is associated with diminished lung function, the onset of asthma and even premature death.
What you can do now: Take air-quality warnings in your community seriously. Don't exercise outdoors when conditions are poor.
More frequent and more devastating wildfires
Wildfires are expected to increase in frequency and severity in forested regions with warmer temperatures and drought. There's grave danger from fires themselves, of course. But the biggest health issue is smoke, laden with pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates (extremely small particles and liquid droplets that lodge in the lungs and injure them). Smoke inhalation causes respiratory distress and increases hospital admissions for asthma, bronchitis, chest pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory ailments.
What you can do now: Be alert to fire warnings. If you’re susceptible to respiratory and circulatory problems, stay indoors when the air quality outside is poor due to smoke from nearby wildfires.
A warming climate means longer growing seasons, changing pollen seasons and the possibility that new allergy-causing plants will pop up in your area.
What you can do now: If you have pollen allergies, you know the drill. Stay inside on dry windy days. Get someone else to mow your lawn, but if you must work outdoors, wear a dust mask. Shower and change your clothes as soon as you come inside.
Although climate change threatens human health in many ways, not all of its health impacts are bad. While heat-related deaths are expected to increase, for example, deaths from cold may decrease. A study in The Lancet of temperature-related deaths in 10 countries, including the United States, found that more than 16 times as many people die from cold as from heat.
And as malaria expands to new areas, the risk seems to be shrinking in others. As a 2014 study in Quantitative Biology looking at the spread of malaria in Africa put it: “Under future climate projections, we predicted a modest increase in the overall area suitable for malaria transmission, but a net decrease in the most suitable area.”
Adds Patz: “The health benefits from greenhouse gas mitigation — burning less fossil fuels — actually swamp the early risk of climate change.”