While a growing number of Americans accept the existence of climate change, most still see it as a distant threat, far removed from the bustle of our daily lives. However, a new report from the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, an alliance of 11 national medical organizations, reveals that climate change is already affecting the general public through harmful health impacts. The report reaffirms what experts have known for some time. Greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of carbon sinks are causing rapid climate change and poor air quality, which in turn burdens millions of Americans with a slew of medical conditions. Unfortunately, climate change receives little attention in public and private discourse, and the little discussion we do have is muddled by arguments over whether anthropogenic global warming exists at all. These debates overshadow vital information on how the consequences of climate change can degrade people's quality of life. The consortium’s mission is in part to change the way we think and talk about global warming so that citizens and policymakers can make informed choices to safeguard public health.

The publication, entitled MEDICAL ALERT! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health, outlines a number of ways that climate change is impacting our health. One key finding is that children, pregnant women, the elderly, low-income people, and individuals with chronic conditions and allergies are especially vulnerable. The report details many of the specific health risks confronting all Americans in an environmentally impaired world. Faced with a growing number of climate casualties, some doctors are realizing they are on the front lines of a public health crisis for which they are ill-equipped to address. There are few patient level prescriptions for an epidemic with a multitude of societal scale causes. Yet, the people they see coming in to their office are clearly sicker they were just a couple of decades ago. As of 2011, Americans were suffering from over 600,000 asthma attacks and 1.3 million respiratory illnesses per year, a problem that has only gotten worse as hot days become more common and the pollen season grows longer.

Dr. Nitin Damle, President of the American College of Physicians says, “It’s not a surprise that over the past five years, my practice has seen a rise in the incidence of tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease and other infections. My physician colleagues used to treat two or three cases a month during tick season; now each of us sees 40 to 50 new cases during each tick season.” Dr. Damle explains that Lyme disease-carrying ticks are most active in warm humid conditions, which is why tick season used to be limited to summer. Today, warmer temperatures have extended the tick season into spring and fall. He also reports that “doctors are seeing more patients struck ill by serious diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile fever” and warns that as the climate continues to change, people will contract vector-borne diseases in parts of the country unaccustomed to such afflictions.

The greater frequency of warm days and extreme weather events like severe rainstorms and flooding is giving rise to disease-related problems affecting food supplies. Flooding and heavy rain “spread fecal bacteria and viruses into fields where food is growing” and high temperatures foster foodborne illnesses in the form of bacteria, pests, and parasites. Trying to combat these infections/infestations, farmers often use more pesticides and drugs, creating an entirely new level of environmental health issues. The climate induced spread of diseases isn’t limited to land. Warming oceans elevate the risk for infectious bacteria in seafood and the buildup of mercury. The study examined Europe and North America, but the most consistent tracking of vibrio illnesses was in the United States. Every year, about 100 Americans die from vibrio infections, a bacteria found in oysters and other seafood. Illness from vibrio-laden oysters are now seen as far north as Alaska, where these infections were previously nonexistent because waters were too cold.

As “once-in-a-generation storms” become increasingly more frequent, public health experts are bracing for rises in weather-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses. In the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States, the number of heavy rainfall events has increased by up to 100 percent and major flooding events are becoming commonplace.

The damaging of our air, water, and climate systems is triggering a wave of other health problems across the United States. Some are more direct, such as airborne pollution that induces thousands of asthma attacks every year. Others impacts are farther removed from the events that set them in motion, such as disruptions to agricultural ecosystems that reduce the availability and nutrition of food. The consortium’s members, which include the American Medical Associations, the American College of Preventative Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, are attempting to close this gap in awareness so that society can develop the resources it needs to sustain healthy communities. The consortium's recommendations for funding targeted research into climate change’s health effects could provide a valuable toolkit for meeting the complex environmental challenges that lay ahead.


Author: Ben Topiel