The Impacts on Health from Climate Change

The Impacts on Health from Climate Change

September 2015

Weather and climate play a significant role in people’s health. Changes in climate affect the average weather conditions that we are accustomed to. Warmer average temperatures will lead to hotter days and more frequent and longer heat waves. This could increase the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths. Increases in the frequency or severity of extreme weather events such as storms could increase the risk of dangerous flooding, high winds, and other direct threats to people and property. Warmer temperatures could increase the concentrations of unhealthy air and water pollutants. Changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and extreme events could enhance the spread of some diseases.

The health impacts of climate change will depend on many factors. These factors include the effectiveness of a community’s public health and safety systems to address or prepare for the risk and the behavior, age, gender, and economic status of individuals affected. Impacts will likely vary by region, the sensitivity of populations, the extent and length of exposure to climate change impacts, and society’s ability to adapt to change.

Although the United States has well-developed public health systems (compared with those of many developing countries), climate change will still likely affect many Americans. In addition, the impacts of climate change on public health around the globe could have important consequences for the United States. For example, more frequent and intense storms may require more disaster relief and declines in agriculture may increase food shortages.

Key Points

* A warmer climate is expected to both increase the risk of heat-related illnesses and death and worsen conditions for air quality.

* Climate change will likely increase the frequency and strength of extreme events (such as floods, droughts, and storms) that threaten human safety and health.

* Climate changes may allow some diseases to spread more easily.

Impacts from Heat Waves

Heat waves can lead to heat stroke and dehydration, and are the most common cause of weather- related deaths. Excessive heat is more likely to impact populations in northern latitudes where people are less prepared to cope with excessive temperatures. Young children, older adults, people with medical conditions… are more vulnerable than others to heat-related illness. The share of the U.S. population composed of adults over age 65 is currently 12%, but is projected to grow to 21% by 2050, leading to a larger vulnerable population.

Impacts from Extreme Weather Events

The frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events is projected to increase in some locations, as is the severity (wind speeds and rain) of tropical storms. These extreme weather events could cause injuries and, in some cases, death. As with heat waves, the people most at risk include young children, older adults, people with medical conditions, and the poor. Extreme events can also indirectly threaten human health in a number of ways. For example, extreme events can:

Reduce the availability of fresh food and water. Interrupt communication, utility, and health care services. Contribute to carbon monoxide poisoning from portable electric generators used during and after storms. Increase stomach and intestinal illness among evacuees. Contribute to mental health impacts such as depression and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Impacts from Reduced Air Quality

Despite significant improvements in U.S. air quality since the 1970s, as of 2008 more than 126 million Americans lived in counties that did not meet national air quality standards.

Increases in Ozone: Scientists project that warmer temperatures from climate change will increase the frequency of days with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant, and a component in smog.

* Ground-level ozone can damage lung tissue and can reduce lung function and inflame airways. This can increase respiratory symptoms and aggravate asthma or other lung diseases. It is especially harmful to children, older adults, outdoor workers, and those with asthma and other chronic lung diseases.

* Ozone exposure is associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, medication use, doctor visits, and emergency department visits and hospital admissions for individuals with lung disease. Some studies suggest that ozone may increase the risk of premature mortality, and possibly even the development of asthma.

* Because warm, stagnant air tends to increase the formation of ozone, climate change is likely to increase levels of ozone in already-polluted areas of the United States and increase the number of days with poor air quality.

Changes in Fine Particulate Matter

Particulate matter is the term for a category of extremely small particles and liquid droplets suspended in the atmosphere. Fine particles include particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (about one ten-thousandth of an inch). These particles may be formed in the atmosphere from chemical reactions of gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.

* Inhaling fine particles can lead to a broad range of adverse health effects, including premature mortality, aggravation of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, development of chronic lung disease, exacerbation of asthma, and decreased lung function growth in children.

* Sources of fine particle pollution include power plants, gasoline and diesel engines, wood combustion, high-temperature industrial processes such as smelters and steel mills, and forest fires.

Changes in Allergens

Climate change may affect allergies and respiratory health. The spring pollen season is already occurring earlier in the United States due to climate change. The length of the season may also have increased. In addition, climate change may facilitate the spread of ragweed, an invasive plant with very allergenic pollen. Tests on ragweed show that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures would increase the amount and timing of ragweed pollen production.

Impacts from Climate-Sensitive Diseases

Changes in climate may enhance the spread of some diseases. [1] Disease-causing agents, called pathogens, can be transmitted through food, water, and animals such as deer, birds, mice, and insects. Climate change could affect all of these transmitters.

Food-borne Diseases

* Higher air temperatures can increase cases of salmonella and other bacteria-related food poisoning because bacteria grow more rapidly in warm environments. These diseases can cause gastrointestinal distress and, in severe cases, death.

* Flooding and heavy rainfall can cause overflows from sewage treatment plants into fresh water sources. Overflows could contaminate certain food crops with pathogen-containing feces.

Water-borne Diseases

* Heavy rainfall or flooding can increase water-borne parasites such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia that are sometimes found in drinking water. These parasites can cause gastrointestinal distress and in severe cases, death.

* Heavy rainfall events cause stormwater runoff that may contaminate water bodies used for recreation (such as lakes and beaches) with other bacteria. The most common illness contracted from contamination at beaches is gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and the intestines that can cause vomiting, headaches, and fever.

Animal-borne Diseases

The geographic range of ticks that carry Lyme disease is limited by temperature. As air temperatures rise, the range of these ticks is likely to expand northward. Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash. In 2002, a new strain of West Nile virus, which can cause serious, life-altering disease, emerged in the United States. Higher temperatures are favorable to the survival of this new strain.

Other Health Linkages

Other linkages exist between climate change and human health. Changes in temperature and precipitation, as well as droughts and floods, will likely affect agricultural yields and production. In some regions of the world, these impacts may compromise food security and threaten human health through malnutrition, the spread of infectious diseases, and food poisoning. The worst of these effects are projected to occur in developing countries, among vulnerable populations.

Although the impacts of climate change have the potential to affect human health in the United States and around the world, there is a lot we can do to prepare for and adapt to these changes. Learn about how we can adapt to climate impacts on health.

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