How Climate Change Impacts Your Health
Climate change is already impacting the health of people across the nation, however certain people are impacted first and worse. Find out how, below.
The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events due climate change is already putting people directly in harm's way. Other changes to our climate have equally profound impacts on our health.
VIDEO: How Climate Change Impacts Health, courtesy of Climate for Health by ecoAmerica.
Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health
Extreme Heat: Extreme heat is directly responsible for the deaths of 600-1,300 people per year in the United States. In addition to heat stroke and other heat related illness, hot days are also associated with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, kidney failure, and preterm birth. Outdoor workers, older adults, pregnant women, and children are at increased risk of health impacts from extreme heat.
Air Quality: Climate change exacerbates illnesses like asthma as well as heart disease. This is due to air pollution including increased particulate matter concentrations from wildfires, and increased ground-level ozone formation from higher temperatures. Further, allergenic pollen seasons are lasting longer – the average daily count and peak pollen values have increased by almost 50% in the U.S. in the last decade. Burning fossil fuels like oil and gas also creates pollution that causes our climate to change in addition to increasing the risk for cancer, lung disease, asthma attacks, and neurological disorders.
Severe Weather Events: Increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events–including hurricanes, tornados, severe storms and flooding–puts people in direct harm (injury, illness, and even death) and threatens healthcare delivery. In addition, many people experience longer term trauma due to property damage or loss. Older adults, people living with disabilities, people with low-wealth, unsheltered people, and underserved communities of color have increased risk of health impacts from severe weather.
Vector-Borne Diseases: Climate change is causing disease-carrying vectors such as mosquitos and ticks to expand into new areas and increase their rate of reproduction. For instance, mosquitoes carry diseases like West Nile Virus, are now appearing in new places, and cases of Lyme disease that is carried by ticks doubled between 2004-2016.
Water-Borne Diseases: Runoff from more frequent and severe rain events increases the toxins and pathogens in recreational waters and drinking water sources. Extreme rainfall events also cause flooding that can overwhelm sewer systems, potentially contaminating drinking water with untreated sewage. In the U.S., this kind of contamination most commonly leads to norovirus infection (causing severe vomiting and diarrhea), giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis (both diarrheal diseases caused by a microscopic parasites that can last for weeks or months) which infect over 7 million residents per year.
Droughts: In addition to lowering the quality and supply of food and water, leading to malnutrition and diarrheal disease, dry soil from drought increases particulate matter in the air. Droughts can also increase concentrations of toxic chemicals in bodies of water and can contribute to the outbreak of toxic algal blooms. Drinking algae-affected water or consuming food (such as fish or shellfish) containing these toxins can lead to gastroenteritis, which can induce vomiting, diarrhea, fevers and headaches. These toxins may also affect the liver or nervous system.
Image courtesy of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change
Food Safety and Nutrition: Rising temperatures decrease crop yields and food safety (faster spoilage), while increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide decrease nutritional values (e.g. levels of essential minerals) in crops. This can lead to food shortages, malnutrition, and high incidence of food poisoning.
Image courtesy of the CDC's Climate and Health Program
While climate change affects all of us, low-income communities, communities of color, people living with chronic disease or disability, children, and older adults are some of the most at-risk.
Several scientific and government reports, linked below, add to the urgency for climate solutions and highlight impacts to vulnerable communities. Since the 1980s, data coupled with stories of people’s lived experiences have demonstrated disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards to low income populations and communities of color. Climate change has this same impact, exacerbating existing disparities and creating new threats.
Climate solutions present an opportunity to strengthen health equity within policies and practices in our communities. Promoting equitable climate and clean energy solutions will create a more healthy and prosperous future for everyone.
Image courtesy of 2018 National Climate Assessment
Ready for more? Learn about the specific ways climate change is impacting the area in which you live with ClimateRx.