Climate change and its impact on public health

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As time passes, scientists have witnessed several developments to the world as we know it. Yet, none has caused as much of a cause for concern as climate change. Encompassing patterns such as humidity, wind, precipitation, temperature and the four seasons, the climate has an impact on not only the various ecosystems found on our planet, but also on the individuals, communities and cultures that rely on their resources, according to the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Although short-term transitions are to be expected, climate change has sped up rapidly since the mid-20th century. While alterations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth and in the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere played a part in this advancement, greenhouse gas emissions may be the biggest factor in causing the planet to become increasingly warm, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As a result, the world is witnessing an increased number of fires, drought, and rising sea levels, among many other environmental detriments. These changes can present substantial risks to the many groups that rely on natural resources, especially on the health of humans.

An increase in weather-related fatalities

Following a natural disaster, scientists look closely at how individuals and their communities were affected. The number of deaths as well as the potential for long-term disadvantages to those who survived are examined. With climate change advancing at an alarming rate – 2016 was Earth’s hottest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization – researchers have had to consider the deadly outcomes extreme weather emergencies could have.

As the planet’s core temperature continues to rise, heat waves are becoming increasingly common around the world. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America categorized extreme heat events as an extended period of time with unusually hot weather conditions that can potentially harm human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, exposure to these warm temperatures can result in the following:

  • Increased discomfort and fatigue
  • Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke
  • Rashes and cramps
  • Higher rate of emergency room visits and hospitalizations
  • Current medical conditions becoming worse
  • Death

Mortality from extreme heat is a major cause for concern. These events produced the most weather-related deaths between 1986 and 2015 as well as 2006 and 2015, according to the U.S. Natural Hazard Statistics. Yet, there’s another worrisome climate change-related disaster that resulted in the highest number of weather-related fatalities in 2015 – and it’s inextricably linked to higher temperatures.

Flooding: A global killer

Sea levels are rising around the world due to a higher temperature within the Earth’s core that is melting the polar ice caps. This, paired with heavier rains, has caused flooding that cannot be overlooked – especially as it relates to public health.

In the U.S. alone, flooding has become a more common occurrence, particularly along the coastlines, according to the EPA. While people may have joked previously about California being underwater in a matter of years, climate change is making that quip seem like more of a reality. The Mid-Atlantic region has faced the largest number of flooding days and two places in New Jersey have become a more common location for this weather-related event than in the 1950s – 10 times more common, to be exact.

To understand this natural, but dangerous, event, it’s important to understand that climate change can cause weather patterns that may seem contradictory. Heavy precipitation and drought, for example, are related as a result of Earth’s rising temperature. Global warming has caused more rain to fall during showers while also causing certain regions to experience a decrease in annual precipitation levels. That’s the difference; while the former relates to heavy precipitation, measure of the latter is related to drought, the Union of Concerned Scientists explained. While one area of the country may be having heavy rain storms, another part may not have seen a drop of precipitation for a while. This is a common occurrence when it comes to climate change and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Flooding can have a number of serious public health impacts, including contamination of fresh water supply, higher risk of drowning and physical injury, heightened chances for water-borne illnesses, damage to living spaces and increase in breeding of insects likely to carry diseases, according to the World Health Organization. That’s not all, however. Precipitation changes – either resulting in drought or heavy rains – could negatively affect the production of foods for consumption in poor areas of the world, causing a lack of nutrition and related deaths.

Infectious diseases on the rise

While individuals may struggle in extreme heat, many contagious illnesses thrive in warmer temperatures. The difference is knowing which diseases are climate sensitive and in what way. Those spread by certain species may experience restricted dissemination since their host cannot exist in high temperatures. Others, like malaria and the Zika virus, are able to take advantage of the conditions of global warming – in this case, heavy precipitation which results in a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carry the disease, according to Harvard University’s Center for

Health and the Global Environment

Rainfall and humidity can also play a role in spreading infectious diseases. The former can cause issues if fecal pathogens are found in a community’s water supply. Furthermore, these transmitters may increase even more after a period of drought, causing an even larger outbreak of a particular infectious disease, according to a study published in Environment International. Humidity, on the other hand, can cause the influenza virus as well as dengue fever to become increasingly responsive and widespread, due to the improved survival rate of mosquitoes in high temperatures.

Mental health takes a toll

While a person’s physical well-being could be negatively affected by the outcomes of climate change, so, too can an individual’s mental health.

Serious adjustments to one’s environment, including the actual surroundings or to the people within the community, can result in higher levels of stress, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, according to the EPA. For example, the deaths of various friends and family members can make the mental health effects of climate change that much more serious.

In addition, the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that extreme heat can not only cause poor physical health in people with mental illness, but also increases the risk of disease and death.

The future of the EPA

In the past few months, global warming has been a hot topic – pun intended – among federal officials. While 97 percent of climate scientists agree the changes Earth is experiencing are real and largely a result of human activities, according to NASA, there are still contrarians who deny the legitimacy of climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which aims to safeguard the environment and human health, has played a large role in climate change research and public health actions. The Clean Power Plan, which was created during former President Obama’s administration, intended to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA estimated the plan would prevent 3,600 premature deaths per year.

On March 28, 2017, current President Donald Trump signed an executive order intended to review – and potentially eliminate – this policy. He cited jobs creation as his main reason for taking this action, CNN reported. Current EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who previously denied that carbon dioxide was a primary contributor to global warming, was present at the signing and agreed with Trump’s decision.

The skinny budget released by the White House on March 15, which included budget cuts across various federal agencies, called for a 31 percent decrease in the EPA’s budget, the New York Times reported. A more in-depth breakdown is to be released at a later date, as is information related to the future of the Clean Power Plan.

Public health is crucial

It’s critical for public health professionals to not only be aware of higher rates of infectious diseases as a result of global warming, but also to recognize which societal and economic elements can cause communities to be especially vulnerable. Poorer societies may not have access to alternative resources if their water supply is contaminated or access to necessary medication if there is an outbreak of a serious illness.

Understanding the potential and likelihood of certain climate change-related outcomes can help those working in the public health field arrange protections and programs to combat these issues. For example, communities that are at a high risk of flooding and its resulting possibility of contaminated water – followed by E. coli and other troublesome illnesses – could be taught about drainage systems that could decrease the chances of this problem.

Public health officials also must consider certain individual features that could cause climate change to take an even larger toll. Things like age, mental health capabilities, line of work and pregnancy play a part in a person’s ability to rebound from the outcomes tied to global warming. Children, the elderly, pregnant or postpartum women, emergency workers, individuals with a preexisting mental illness, the economically disadvantaged are at a higher risk for negative consequences related to climate change, especially weather-related events.

The online Master of Public Health degree offered at The University of Arizona prepares public health professionals to assess and analyze these factors with a critical eye. Find out more about our online MPH and how this advanced degree can help you accelerate your career in public health.