Global warming and health. A changing climate is making Americans sick

A report from the US government shows how global warming is making Americans sick. With dire predictions for the future, the need for solutions is critical

A report has sounded the alarm about the dangers of global warming for the citizens of the United States. The report, The impacts of climate change on human health in the United States, was released by the country’s government in 2016. Climate change is causing a surge in mental and respiratory illnesses, allergies, deaths from extreme heat and cases of Lyme Disease, according to it. A White House fact sheet explains that as the climate changes, the risks to human health will continue to grow, creating new public health challenges. While some hope may be found in the ability of the human body to adapt to the increased hazards, global warming will likely claim more victims than previously thought.

Global warming and health

Weather and climate are constantly changing, creating severe patterns in new areas or worsening the impact of existing phenomena, for example increased hurricane intensity in the Gulf of Mexico region of the US. Areas previously unaffected by toxic algal blooms or waterborne diseases may encounter these issues in the future, since increasing water temperatures allow the organisms, which pose health risks, to thrive. Climate change can also have an impact on mental health and well-being, with symptoms ranging from minimal stress to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Temperature-related deaths and illnesses

Rising temperatures caused by the growing concentrations of greenhouse gases may lead to an increase in deaths and illnesses from heat, especially for children, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged groups. Temperature extremes worsen cardiovascular, respiratory disease and diabetes-related conditions, while also compromising the body’s ability to regulate its temperature, leading to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke in extreme heat, or hypothermia and frostbite in extreme cold.

Air quality impacts

Both indoor and outdoor air quality is affected by changes in the climate, with a negative effect on the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Changing weather patterns have an influence on the levels and location of outdoor air pollutants, such as ground-level ozone (O3)  and fine particulate matter. Higher carbon dioxide (CO2), which promotes the growth of plants, translates into a surge in the release of airborne allergens. Indoor air quality is also affected, as the aforementioned pollutants and allergens enter all types of buildings. Higher concentrations of pollen can increase allergic reactions and asthma episodes.

Vector-borne diseases and water-related illnesses

Insect vectors, which include mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, can carry pathogens, which they can transfer to humans or other animals. The distribution of vector-borne diseases is greatly influenced by temperature extremes and precipitation. Lyme disease has been steadily increasing in the Northeast and Upper Midwestern Unites States. Water-related illnesses are caused by pathogens or toxins produced by harmful algae and man-made chemicals. Humans are typically exposed through ingestion, inhalation, or direct contact with contaminated water, fish and shellfish. Changes in climate affect the spread and virulence or toxicity of the agents causing illnesses.

Food safety, nutrition and distribution

Climate change will likely affect food security all over the globe, by disrupting food availability and decreasing access to nutrition. Rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns may have significant consequences for contamination, spoilage and the disruption of food distribution. Also, while higher concentrations of CO2 may stimulate growth and carbohydrate production in some plants, it may also lower protein and essential minerals content in some widely consumed crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes, with potentially negative implications on human nutrition.

US President Barack Obama has often taken action to reduce the effects of global warming
US President Barack Obama speaks to the press about global warming and sustainability after one of several meetings on climate change © Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

How the American government plans to respond

The Obama administration’s response plan includes the expansion of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, as well as the introduction of educational materials on climate change and health. The Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, will provide awards for tribal and territorial health departments for managing and addressing the health effects of climate change. Also, the 23rd to the 27th of May will be designated as Extreme Heat Week, during which federal agencies will enhance community preparedness for extreme heat events. Yet, the government isn’t doing enough according to Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington’s public health school. “The report clearly establishes that climate change is a major threat to public health in the United States,” he said, but “there is a vast disconnect between the magnitude of the problem, as outlined by this report, and the response of government health agencies”.

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