Climate Change

How climate change affects health in the US (and elsewhere)

For health, climate change is a catchall detrimental factor, increasing hazards across the board

By Paul Hormick
Published: Monday 25 November 2019
Respiratory impairments can be affected by smoke from wildfires, which are on the increase due to climate change. Photo: Getty Images
A wildfire near Santa Barbara, California, United States. Photo: Getty Images A wildfire near Santa Barbara, California, United States. Photo: Getty Images

A recent study in the United States (US) comprehensively links climate change and costs associated with public health.

Researchers looked at both, national and locally-collected health data on ten types of climate-related events that occurred in the United States in 2012.

The study, published in GeoHealth, calculated the health burden of increased heat and more severe weather of these ten events, which resulted in 917 deaths, over 20,000 hospitalisations, and almost 18,000 cases of emergency department care.

The researchers estimated the total costs of these ten events to be $10 billion in 2018 US dollars.

Most studies of this kind concentrate on a relatively limited geographic region and are usually limited to a single matter of health or disease, such as malaria. This study, however, looked at diverse regions, from subtropical coasts to alpine mountains, and differing climate-related phenomena.

Researchers examined the costs of ozone air pollution in the state of Nevada, health-related effects of wildfires in Colorado and Washington state, extreme heat in Wisconsin, the mosquito-borne West Nile virus in Texas, tick-borne Lyme disease in Michigan, extreme weather in Ohio, health-related effects of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York, algal blooms on the coast of Florida, and the occurrence of allergy-inducing oak pollen in North Carolina.

The study looked at data from 2012, and since then, conditions have continued to worsen. Globally, the five hottest years on record have been in the last five years.

This study is only the most recent that finds detrimental health effects from the consequences of climate change. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that climate change claimed 150,000 lives annually, due to climate change-exacerbated heat waves, altered transmission of infectious diseases, and malnourishment due to crop failures.

In the US, health costs are usually not tallied along with other costs due to climate change. The costs of increased and lengthier hospital stays, more medications, lost wages due to illness, are not added to the costs of damaged crops and flooded homes.

The researchers who conducted this study estimate that if health costs were considered along with those of infrastructure and agriculture, the estimates of cost would go up by 26 per cent.

Climate change, health and US politics 

For health, climate change is a catchall detrimental factor, increasing hazards across the board.

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health institute in the US, climate change increases the occurrence of vector-borne disease by bringing earlier springs, longer and hotter summers, and milder winters, giving mosquitos and ticks, the organisms that transmit these diseases, better conditions to thrive.

In the United States, the transmission of Lyme disease is also aided by increased precipitation and humidity.

Climate change can exacerbate respiratory problems. Longer summers can increase the number of weeks or months of pollen season, which can exacerbate asthma.

Higher temperatures also mean more ground level ozone, which can lead to diminished lung functioning, more asthma, and even increase the number of premature deaths.

These same respiratory impairments can also be affected by smoke from wildfires, which are on the increase due to climate change.

Over the course of a single lifetime, the US has experienced an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events, defined as days with precipitation in the top one per cent of all days with precipitation. These events of course lead to more frequent and severe flooding. In the US, floods are the second deadliest weather hazard after heat.

According to the WHO, malaria may prove to be the vector-borne disease that is most exacerbated by climate change worldwide. Scientists have long studied the link between extreme weather events and malaria outbreaks in India.

High monsoon rainfall and high humidity, which enhanced mosquito breeding, have been associated with malaria epidemics in the river-irrigated Punjab region. Malaria increases by 500 per cent in the year after an El Niño.

In the US, there exists a great political divide on climate change, perhaps best illustrated by President Trump’s insistence that the science of climate change is a hoax. His stance is echoed by a majority of the Republican Party to which he belongs.

The opposition party, the Democrats, has countered this stance through its rhetoric, legislation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and support for the Paris Accord.

As the authors of this study point out, these politics play out in the health care costs of climate change. The study found that more than two-thirds of the health costs of the climate-related events were borne by Medicare and Medicaid, which are national programmes that mitigate the health costs of the elderly and poor.

Medicare and Medicaid are supported by the Democratic Party and opposed by many in the Republican Party.

(Paul Hormick is a freelance writer and an environmental advocate in San Diego, California)

(Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth)

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