climate change and human health

Are You Ready? Experts Warn of 11 Climate-Related Health Threats

A new report sets up an outline for further research into how a warming planet will affect human health—and how to adapt.

Are You Ready? Experts Warn of 11 Climate-Related Health Threats

Are you prepared for the health threats of a hotter planet?

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.

Protect yourself: Check air-quality reports daily and avoid exercising outside when levels are unfit; cut down on surprising sources of indoor air pollution.

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.

Published on: April 26, 2010
Updated on: August 6, 2013

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