How Climate Change May Affect Your Health

How Climate Change May Affect Your Health

No matter where you live or how high your socioeconomic status, climate change can endanger your health, both physical and mental, now and in the future.

Melting ice caps, warmer oceans, intense storms, heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires — all these well-documented effects of climate change may seem too remote to many people to prompt them to adopt behaviors that can slow the warming of the planet. Unless your neighborhood was destroyed by a severe hurricane or raging wildfire, you might think such disasters happen only to other people.

But what if I told you that no matter where you live or how high your socioeconomic status, climate change can endanger your health, both physical and mental, now and in the future? Not only your health, but also the health of your children and grandchildren? Might you consider making changes to help mitigate the threat?

Relatively few Americans associate climate change with possible harms to their health, and most have given little thought to this possibility. Even though I read widely about medical issues, like most Americans, I too was unaware of how many health hazards can accompany climate change.

Studies in the United States and Britain have shown that “people have a strong tendency to see climate change as less threatening to their health and to their family’s health than to other people’s health,” according to Julia Hathaway and Edward W. Maibach at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

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How Climate Change May Affect Your Health

Two recently published reports set me straight. One, by two public health experts, called for the creation within the National Institutes of Health of a “National Institute of Climate Change and Health” to better inform the medical community, public officials and ordinary citizens about ways to stanch looming threats to human health from further increases in global warming.

The experts, Dr. Howard Frumkin and Dr. Richard J. Jackson, both former directors of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that recent climate-related disasters, including devastating wildfires and a record-breaking hurricane season, demonstrate that our failure to take climate change seriously is resulting in needless suffering and death.

The second report appeared just as I began investigating the evidence supporting their proposal: a full-page article in The New York Times on Nov. 29 with the headline “Wildfire Smoke in California Is Poisoning Children.” It described lung damage along with lifelong threats to the health of youngsters forced to breathe smoke-laden air from wildfires that began raging in August and fouled the air throughout the fall.

Children are not the only ones endangered. Anyone with asthma can experience life-threatening attacks when pollution levels soar. The risks of heart disease and stroke rise. And a recent study in JAMA Neurology of more than 18,000 Americans with cognitive impairment found a strong link between high levels of air pollution and an increased risk of developing dementia.

“While anyone’s health can be harmed by climate change, some people are at greatly increased risk, including young children, pregnant women, older adults, people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, outdoor workers, and people with fewer resources,” Drs. Hathaway and Maibach wrote in Current Environmental Health Reports.