Is climate change making us sick? I recently discussed this question with Linda Marsa, contributing editor at Discover magazine and author of the new book Fevered: Why A Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health – And How We Can Save Ourselves.
Q: Is climate change already having an impact on human health or are experts just anticipating that it will?
A: “There is a lot that’s going on in the United States that is related to climate change and we don’t realize it. We have rising rates of asthma. We have rising rates of allergies. Climate change is one of the drivers. The spread of infectious diseases: You’ve got Lyme disease now up in Canada because Canada’s become a newly warm habitat for the deer that carry the black-legged tick that carry the Lyme disease bacteria. We’re sort of at the leading edge of these things but it’s starting to happen.
The other piece of this that really isn’t looked at as much in terms of say climate change and health is with all these extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. What you’re having are problems with the public health system. In Katrina you had a complete collapse of the public health system. In other places there are deficiencies. It exposes the fissures and fractures within the public health system so that you have higher incidences of deaths, morbidity, chronic disease that becomes exaggerated, etc. The answer is yes, there is actually a lot there.”
Q: How have you made the connection between climate change and health problems? It seems like it’s hard to see a direct cause and effect.
A: “It’s not the only driver, but it’s one of the drivers. I just did a blog post for the Public Library of Science and what they’re looking at is the spread of migratory patterns of the ades albopictus mosquito.
Before you fall completely asleep, this is really important because this is a mosquito that originally lived in Japan and was sort of imported here in 1985 in tires, and it has now spread from the southern area – it arrived here in Houston. It’s now present in Connecticut and it’s moving northward. And they expect that by the end of the century the area the mosquito will cover more than half of the northeastern part of the country.
And the reason this is important is that this particular insect vector spreads 20 different types of diseases including dengue, including West Nile virus, things like that. West Nile virus became firmly entrenched in the United States because of climate change. That’s one disease we know is here because of a change in climate. When West Nile arrived in 1999, you had the perfect weather conditions that made it hospitable for the vector, which is this species of mosquito that can carry West Nile.
We are starting to see a lot of these emerging diseases, and they’re worried about a lot of other ones like chikungunya, which is very endemic in Southeast Asia.”
Q: In what ways did you find heat waves affect people’s health and might have increasing impacts on health as time goes on?
A: “The sad thing is we know how to prevent deaths and disabilities from heat waves: Keep people in cool places, keep them hydrated. But not everybody can afford air conditioning. You have the elderly who tend to be shut-ins. They found in Chicago when they had that terrible heat wave where so many people died and also in Europe, in Paris, that you had these elderly shut-ins that weren’t getting proper ventilation. What happens is after two days body’s natural cooling mechanism sort of shuts down and problems set in. You get heat stroke, which causes neurological deficits, causes heart deficits, interferes with the rhythm of the heart and electrical system, which can lead to death.
What happened in Chicago is really sort of a cautionary tale. Seven hundred people perished and and about 3,500 people were rushed to the emergency room. But many of those who were hospitalized and then released later have long-term health consequences such as a worsening of heart disease or kidney failure. And what’s more, and this is really very chilling to me, nearly half the heat stroke patients who were rushed to the ICU died within a year, according to the follow-up studies, while one third were permanently disabled and unable to live independently. So, that’s one aspect of the heat.”
Q: You also address the urban heat island effect. How does urban development tie in with the health impacts of climate change?
A: “This to me is sort of the critical thing. By 2030, which is less than 20 years from now, about 60 percent of the projected global population of 8.3 billion people will live in cities. And as we expand we keep cutting down the farms, forests and trees which absorb sunlight and cool down temperatures. And also, parenthetically, are also carbon sinks. And replacing the greenery and native vegetation with concrete and asphalt buildings and blacktop on roads makes denser areas hotter because that engineered infrastructure retains and radiates heat. And then the hothouse effect is intensified by a lack of cooling ventilation in the urban canyons created by tall buildings. We see that in places that have really, really dense urban centers. They’re saying that in places like New York if we do nothing by by 2050, New York City will regularly have July days in excess of 100 degrees and the number of 90 degree days will double. And those above 95 degrees will triple.
We’re continuing to dump all this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and then it’s getting hotter, and it’s just basic chemistry. The sunlight cooks this ground-level pollution and it creates smog and smog is what causes the asthma and also heart disease because it causes thickening of the arteries. I even came across one study that showed exposures to all this smog and pollution can contribute to dementia and confusion. And it makes sense because you have that small particulate matter that can get into the brain and they’re really starting to see possible neurological deficits.
We’re seeing – they call them carbon domes and they’re starting to form over cities. You look at Salt Lake City, you know, which is in a valley. That’s starting to have carbon domes. You have carbon domes in California’s Central Valley. They have much higher rates of asthma, allergies, all these kinds of things. One of the things you might be getting in the Pacific Northwest is more allergies. Because the allergy seasons are longer and because of the CO2-enriched atmosphere, you’re starting to get more noxious weeds, so the weeds have more allergens in them. The ragweed is more noxious and causes more allergic reactions.”
Q: You’ve written about the studies showing that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires. What are there health effects of wildfires?
A: “There hasn’t been that much research into the health effects of wildfires, but there was one study. It was a June 2008 study on a lightning strike that ignited this peat bog fire in an area of North Carolina. What they found is that emergency visits for cardiac and respiratory systems spiked by about 37 percent. Somebody who’s got bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease things like that. It just becomes exacerbated by breathing in all this smoke. This exacerbates heart disease things like that. So these might be things that are endemic to your area as well once the wildfire footprint is starting to spread as the ecosystems change.”
Q: What do you think about cryptococcus gattii, the subtropical fungus that has shown up in the Northwest over the past decade and caused a number of infections in Oregon and Washington?
A: “I think the important thing about this is not so much the small number of infections but this is sort of a lens into how the ecosystem is changing as things are warming up. So that’s what I think is the importance of this. This is really not a huge threat. It’s a window into what’s going to happen in the future as we have these warming trends.”
Q: Do you have any recommendations for what people should do to address the health impacts of climate change?
A: “Especially on a local level, the mayors and civic officials, they are very aware of what’s going on with climate change, and they’re already starting to make preparations. Chicago is a good example. They had that terrible heat wave in 1995 and they have instituted model programs that have become standard practice across the country. Heat wave warning systems, buddy systems, opening up cooling centers, not shutting off electricity. Sometimes people don’t pay their bill and the electric company would shut them off. During heat waves they’re not allowed to do this. They put more paramedics on.
New Orleans, their public health system was completely flattened, and so they’ve rebuilt it from the ground up . One of the things they did is they’re participating in a federal pilot program called the Beacon Exchange, which is keeping electronic records off-site. One of the things that happened after Katrina is no one had their medical records. You’re in the middle of chemotherapy and nobody has a clue what your regimen is.
Orange County California for some reason their water managers looked into the future about 15 years ago and realized it was going to be pretty dry. And they started positioning Orange County to be able to live with a much drier future. They’ve become world leaders in water management. Las Vegas, same thing. I’ve seen a lot of positive things across the country. It’s sort of the beginning of a new scaffolding of sort of a new society of how we’re going to have to live in a hotter climate. I was gratified to see that because it was something I could point to rather than saying ‘This is happening. Here’s what we need to do.’”