Doctors sound the alarm: climate change poses immediate health risks

Doctors sound the alarm: climate change poses immediate health risks

By Gracie Pearsall

While most Americans recognise that climate change is a real threat, the pervasive attitude is that it is a distant problem. Although, people might be concerned for the future of the ice caps and coastal cities, many have not considered the possibility that climate change could affect their lives and health right now. The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health (MSCCH) seeks to remedy this and alert Americans that climate change is already harming their health.

Climate related health impacts

In March of 2017, the MSCCH released a report that outlines the ways climate change threatens our health. Through scientific studies, facts, and anecdotes, the physicians expose the health consequences of climate change. They paint a grim picture of a society plagued by climate-related illnesses explaining how the increased frequency of extreme weather events will impact our health. Heat waves will cause more incidents of heat-related illness and stress, which are already the leading cause of climate-related deaths. Severe storms and flooding will cause displacement, injury, death, and even contaminate drinking water and crops with debris and pollutants.

The report also describes how a warmer and wetter climate allows disease vector species such as ticks and mosquitoes to thrive and expand their geographic range, which alters the pattern of infectious diseases. Physicians are already seeing an increase in cases of Lyme Disease and West Nile virus, and fear that malaria might reemerge in the United States. As these carriers spread throughout the United States, they will bring familiar diseases to new places, and allow for the rise of new ones.

The physicians present poor air quality as the most widespread and pressing threat to our health. The emission of greenhouse gasses and particulate matter, combined with frequent wildfires, has significantly reduced air quality. People’s hearts and lungs are most at risk, but poor air quality has also been linked to cancer in other parts of the body. Approximately seven million people worldwide die prematurely every year due to health issues linked to air pollution.

Furthermore, a growing body of research suggests that the physical, social, and economic stresses that climate change creates increase the risk of mental health issues. In the wake of extreme weather events, most survivors report stress, depression, and anxiety. In one case, after record flooding in Louisiana in 2016, teachers reported that some children became so anxious when it rained, that the children needed counseling.

Image: The map shows key impacts of climate change on health in the USA by region. Credit: The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

Resilience in the health care sector

In the face of these alarming facts, the MSCCH has embraced a central ideal of public health: prevention. These physicians side with climate scientists and conclude that only through swift action can we prevent further harm and protect the health of all Americans. Their proposed means of prevention is to “accelerate the inevitable transition to clean, renewable energy”. This transition would have immediate public health benefits. It would move away from greenhouse gas combustion, and reduce exposure to harmful pollutants, slow warming, and clean up our air and water. Additionally, clean and renewable energy encourage active transportation, such as walking and biking, which help to lower rates of heart disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes.

To achieve this transition and implement preventative and protective measures, the physicians prescribe certain actions to various demographics. First, they recommend doctors treat patients who are affected by climate-related health effects. They also implore doctors to educate their patients and the public on how climate change can affect their health, and what actions we can take to prevent further harm. Next, they advise public health professionals to educate the public on the threat climate change poses, and develop climate risk monitoring and alert systems to keep the public informed in the case of an extreme weather event. Finally, the MSCCH urges business leaders and policymakers to assess this new information and adapt accordingly so that we can build resilience against harmful effects of climate change. The MSCCH’s prioritization of prevention and mitigation reveals that adaptation and resilience carry diverse sets of benefits.


Cover photo by The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health

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