Climate Change Is a Public Health Issue

Hansa Bhargava, MD


June 06, 2017

I'm Dr Hansa Bhargava, a practicing physician and medical advisor for Medscape. Let's talk about climate change.

Health Effects of Climate Change

According to NASA, our planet has been warming at a rapid pace over the past few decades. Climate experts predict that temperatures will continue to rise. Reports of melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and weather changes have become staples of nightly news broadcasts. Global warming can be concerning, but are your patients wondering whether climate change can affect health? It seems that it can.

When temperatures rise, cities are hit with heat waves that can cause heatstroke, dehydration, and other serious heat-related illnesses. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by the end of this century, extreme heat waves could cause tens of thousands of additional deaths each summer.[1] Numerous studies have also documented an increase in child death and illness during extreme heat events, especially in infants under 1 year of age.[2]

Heat also breeds illness. When temperatures rise, disease carriers like mosquitoes and ticks travel to regions that were once too cold for them to survive. As these insects migrate, they spread diseases. Some experts speculate that climate change could contribute to future spread of the Zika virus as well as other mosquito-borne illnesses.

The combination of warmer air, sunlight, and pollution creates more ozone. This toxic gas reduces air quality, making it much harder to breathe, especially for people who already have asthma and other lung conditions. Air pollution is not only a trigger for worsening asthma symptoms, but it also has been recognized to contribute to the development of asthma.[3]

And then there are the allergies. Warmer temperatures make for a longer allergy season, prolonging the misery for people who are sensitive to pollen, grass, and other outdoor allergens. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide accelerates the growth of pollen-producing plants, and with it, the amount of pollen released into the air.

Here's something we may not have expected: Increased environmental temperatures have been linked to an increase in diabetes incidence. In a recent study,[4]researchers speculate that this uptick has to do with brown fat, which our bodies normally burn to keep us warm during the cold months. In warmer temperatures, this fat becomes less active, which could contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes.

So it turns out that climate change may affect a lot more than the environment. It may also result in changes in what we see in our patients, too.

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