Many people have been pondering why the strongest El Niño on record did not bring huge amounts of rain to the Central Coast this winter. A recent Tribune article by John Lindsey concluded the probable reason is climate change. While scientists have long forewarned us about weather patterns and environmental impacts of climate change — such as melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and severe droughts and floods — there has been a conspicuous dearth of awareness or discussion regarding the very real health consequences of climate change.
In April, the White House released a groundbreaking report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” The report calls climate change a significant threat to the health of the American people. According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, surgeon general of the United States, “The changes are happening right now. … Climate change is going to impact health, and it’s not a pretty picture.”
There are four key areas in which climate change is going to affect human health.
1. Climate change is expected to cause more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires and drought can have fatal consequences in and of themselves, but they can also lead to food and waterborne illnesses after the fact. In addition, if public infrastructure, including communication systems or emergency response services, is damaged, access to lifesaving care can be hindered. Extreme events can also impact mental health, resulting in depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
2. Climate change can cause air pollution and thus aggravate asthma and allergies. Pollution, such as ground-level ozone, can cause premature death and can worsen both respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, resulting in higher emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Also, higher temperatures yielding rising levels of carbon pollution are expected to lead to higher levels of allergens, contributing to asthma and other illnesses. A 2013 article in CHEST, a peer-reviewed medical journal, called climate change “a health threat no less consequential than cigarette smoking.”
3. Climate change can help spread a variety of vector-borne illnesses. As the climate warms, vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks will have an expanded geographical range and will have a longer breeding season. For example, the incidence of Lyme disease, a disease passed by ticks, has doubled from 1991 to 2013. Other diseases, including malaria, West Nile virus, Dengue fever and Zika virus have also increased substantially.
4. Climate change will cause rising temperatures projected to lead to an estimated 150,000 deaths in the United States by 2100. 2015 was named the hottest year on record, and 2016 is on track to break that record. As temperatures rise, intense heat waves happen more frequently, leading to dehydration, heat stroke and premature death. This is particularly an issue in the most vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and low-income people who generally have higher rates of chronic diseases and fewer resources at their disposal.
Public health has a unique position in the health community. While doctors and hospitals focus on treating people who are sick, the public health profession works at the population level and concentrates on preventing people from becoming sick or injured in the first place. Thus, we have a responsibility and an obligation to educate our communities about the health impacts of climate change, to support action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and to enhance the ability of our communities to be resilient.
About two years ago, our public health department developed a program called OutsideIn SLO: We Take Health and Climate Change Personally. The program educates people on the health impacts of climate change and suggests simple things that individuals can do in their lives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If you or your organization would like more information about this program, please call us at 805-781-5564.
Dr. Penny Borenstein is San Luis Obispo County’s health officer.