When you think of global warming, you may imagine crazy weather patterns or melting glaciers. It’s a faraway problem that will have terrible implications for the future, right? However, a new report shows that climate change is harming human health across the United States now.
The report, released by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health—an organization of 12 medical societies representing over half of the nation’s doctors, outlines eight ways that climate change directly harms physical and mental health. These include extreme heat and weather events, air pollution, contaminated food and water, tick- and mosquito-borne infections, and threats to nutrition.
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For each direct health threat, the report breaks down what’s happening, how it harms your health, and who is at risk. The report breaks down how these threats vary by region—wildfires in the west and tick-borne infections in the Northeast. (Here's exactly what you should do if you think you have Lyme disease.)
“As physicians, we want to make sure that everyone knows about the effects of climate change on health,” says Dr. Julie Wood, Senior Vice President for the American Academy of Family Physicians and a member of the Consortium’s Steering Committee. She says that most people see climate change as an environmental issue rather than a health one. In fact, the report states that only 32 percent of Americans could name a specific way in which climate change harms health.
Take air pollution, for example. Together with global warming, it makes it harder to breathe, especially for those with asthma and allergies. While poor air quality from car exhaust is one clear factor, warmer temperatures also lead to a greater risk of wildfires, releasing harmful particulates into the air, and a longer allergy season. (Here's what happened when one woman ditched her allergy meds and tried rinsing her sinuses instead.)
“The pollen season is starting earlier and lasting longer, due to the warmer weather,” says Dr. David Peden, member of the Consortium’s Steering Committee, President of American Academy of Allergy Asthma, and Immunology and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. The pollen is also more potent.
According to the report, the warmer climate not only increases the number of insects that carry illnesses like Lyme Disease or West Nile Virus but also the geographical range too. In fact, NPR recently reported on the rise of tick-borne diseases across the U.S. Dr. Peden notes that he’s seen an uptick in concerns related to insects such as fire ants and yellow jackets too.
Extreme heat and weather events, such as droughts and flooding, also have a direct impact on health in addition to storm-related injury. Following heavy rainfall, storm water and sewage may mix, contaminating drinking water and even lakes and rivers where you may swim. (Here's how to check if your local tap water is safe to drink.) What’s more surprising is that these weather-related events are also impacting the nutritional value of our food such as wheat, rice, barley, and potatoes. Due to the greater amount of carbon dioxide in the air, plants produce less protein and more sugar and starch.
While climate change may feel like a giant (and scary) problem, there are things you can do now to recognize and mitigate your risk for climate-related health concerns.