We've all heard about climate change and its impact on polar bears. But beyond that, things seem pretty comfortable here in the United States, where the effects of a warming planet aren't yet as apparent as in other parts of the world. However, in April 2010, Environmental Health Perspectives and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) published a report, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that identified 11 key categories of diseases and other human-health consequences related to a warming planet that are actually happening already in this country, or that will occur due to climate change. "This white paper articulates, in a concrete way, that human beings are vulnerable in many ways to the health effects of climate change," says Linda Birnbaum, PhD, director of the NIEHS (a branch within the NIH) and the National Toxicology Program. "It lays out both what we know and what we need to know about these effects in a way that will allow the health research community to bring its collective knowledge to bear on solving these problems."
The white paper highlights the state of the science on the following human-health consequences of climate change:
Asthma, respiratory allergies, and airway diseases
A warming climate alters growing seasons and could lead to a rise in respiratory allergies. (Do you live in one of the Top 10 Spring Allergy Capitals of the U.S.?) Extreme and more frequent precipitation could increase lung-irritating mold counts, while the same is true for higher dust levels in the air, stemming from droughts.
Protect yourself: Avoid common allergy mistakes like medicating before you know what you're actually allergic to.
The two major links are through air pollution and toxic dumpsites. Cutting our reliance on fossil fuels will reduce many of the air pollutants that are known to increase the risk of lung cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease and other lung diseases, says lead report author Christopher Portier, PhD, senior advisor of the NIEHS. "Hence, we could see a reduction in cancers if we reduce air pollution," he says. In contrast, heat can increase low-level ozone levels; ozone is associated with lung cancers.
On the other hand, Portier says increased flooding and rising sea levels could reach toxic dump sites and underground storage facilities, many of which contain chemicals that are known to cause cancer.
Protect yourself: Contact Congress and other leaders, and lobby for aggressive climate-change policy that will reduce the use of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas, and rely more on clean-energy solutions like solar and wind. Also avoid using pesticides in and around your home; instead use natural bug- and weed-control methods.
Read more about the human-health problems associated with climate change in Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health—And How We Can Save Ourselves
Cardiovascular disease and stroke
Heat stress and an increase of airborne particulate pollution can worsen existing cardiovascular disease; more research is needed to investigate how higher temperatures, heat waves, extreme weather, and changes in air quality affect heart and circulatory health.
Foodborne diseases and malnutrition
It's no secret that climate change is disrupting food production in certain parts of the world, and researchers believe that will continue. (One solution: A 2008 United Nations report found organic farms produced higher yields than chemical methods that pollute food, soil, air, and water supplies.) Higher ocean temperatures are also linked to an increase in certain bacteria that cause food contamination outbreaks in oysters, and increased temperatures also affect the rate of other food-poisoning microorganisms, including Salmonella. In fact, a recent study found that for every degree centigrade rise in temperature, there was a 2.5 to 6 percent increase in the risk of foodborne illness.
Protect yourself: Support organic agriculture, which traps carbon dioxide in the soil and keeps it out of the atmosphere, where it contributes to a warming planet. Organic farming also keeps the soil healthy and produces better yields during drought, and it acts as a sponge, reducing runoff during floods. Look for the USDA organic label at the supermarket, and find a farmer's market near you that sells organic produce.
Heat-related illness and death
It seems almost every summer that you hear stories of people who die in their homes during heat waves, and researchers believe this problem will intensify as the global climate chaos continues.
Protect yourself: Keep your home cool without using more fossil-fuel energy to air-condition it. Plant a native shade tree, and bounce heat off your property with a cool roof and ecofriendly, permeable driveway. If you're active while you're outdoors in the heat, make sure to drink at least 64 ounces of water that day to prevent heatstroke.
Human developmental effects
Human development could be damaged by malnutrition during the critical prenatal and early childhood development period. On top of that, researchers believe that exposure to toxic contaminants and biotoxins, "resulting from extreme weather events, increased pesticide use for food production, and increases in harmful algal blooms in recreational areas," will increase.
Protect yourself: Eat organic food and start an organic garden, so you have as much control over your food as possible. You can grow more than 100 pounds of nutrient-dense food a season in even a small garden.
Mental health and stress-related disorders
Climate change, as it worsens, will likely increase chronic stress as large populations of people are displaced or killed due to climate-related catastrophes.
Protect yourself: Learn to practice mindfulness meditation, in which you learn to focus on the moment in a non-judgmental way, paying attention to (but not trying to control) your breath and how the earth feels beneath your feet. A Department of Defense–funded study found that mindfulness meditation before deployment can help soldiers think more clearly during crisis periods.
Neurological diseases and disorders
Biotoxins, such as those described in harmful algae blooms above, pesticides used in response to changes in agriculture, and metals, found in new battery technologies and compact fluorescent lights (and ones that leach from toxic waste sites and landfills) could cause a boom in neurological diseases.
Protect yourself: Buy USDA-certified organic food, which is grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, to keep brain-damaging poisons in your body. And live as simply as possible. The more cellphones and computers we buy, the more toxic metals could wind up in our food and water supply. Find a place to recycle used electronics responsibly at Earth911.com.
Warmer water causes stronger storms, and those heavy rains can cause flooding and the leaching of contaminants from sewage treatment plants back into waterways and drinking-water supplies.
Protect yourself: Check beach water-quality reports before heading to the ocean, and if rapid results aren't available, refrain from swimming in the ocean 24 hours after a major rainstorm—it's not uncommon for overrun stormwater systems to create sewage overflow that winds up in the water.
Weather-related illness and death
Wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and droughts are expected to cause increased deaths and sickness in the U.S., the researchers estimate.
Protect yourself: Do your part in your neighborhood to lessen the impacts of flooding. Instead of turf lawn that is miserable at absorbing water, leading to runoff and flooding downstream, plant water-sipping native plants and trees. They are easy to grow chemical-free, as well, which also helps your soil act like a sponge, storing water during periods of drought. Have an emergency go-bag ready in case severe weather threatens your family.
Vectorborne and zoonotic diseases
Researchers know that climate is one of several factors that influence the distribution of some diseases transmitted to humans from vectors, insects, ticks, or other animals, such as Lyme disease, which is prevalent in this country, West Nile virus, and diseases that are much less common in the U.S., such as malaria and hantavirus. For instance, Lyme disease is expected to expand northward.
Protect yourself: Make your home bat-friendly, and learn to make your home and body less appealing to ticks and mosquitoes using natural methods. (Prevent Lyme disease by installing fences that keep deer out and by installing a gravel barrier between your yard and wooded areas to discourage mice from entering your yard.)
So isn't it too late to be developing a road map for climate change when many leading climate scientists say we are already at a tipping point? "Quite the opposite. As we begin to make choices on energy policies to mitigate climate change, and as we prepare for adaptation to aspects of climate change we cannot avoid, now is the time to be studying which choices will be the healthiest for the population as a whole," says Portier. "Smart choices can satisfy our needs for adaptation and mitigation while optimizing health benefits."
Originally Published: April 04, 2010
Published on: April 26, 2010