Climate Change is an Attack on Health


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Over the years, climate change has become a highly politicized issue. Party lines have been drawn over economics and whether climate change is even happening. But rarely do we hear climate change called what it is: a public health crisis.

“As physicians, we are realizing climate change is the greatest public health emergency of our time,” said Dr. Lisa Doggett of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility in a CBS interview.

According to a report from Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), every year pollution kills as many people as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined and causes 15 times the number of deaths caused by war and all other forms of violence. Globally, the United States ranks seventh for overall pollution-related deaths, with 197,000 deaths reported in 2017. Among the top 10, the U.S. stands as the wealthiest nation.

While toxic land and water also kill many, air pollution is by far the biggest killer, largely thanks to particulate matter (PM). PM is a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. These particles are either directly emitted like during the burning of fossil fuels or indirectly formed when gaseous pollutants turn into particulate matter over time. According to the GAHP report, toxic ambient air is responsible for 3.4 million or 40 percent of pollution-related deaths worldwide.

But the issue goes beyond just pollution.

Extreme heat kills more Americans every year than any other weather-related disaster, except hurricanes. And, as climate change progresses, heat waves will only continue to grow in intensity and frequency.

High temperatures can also increase pollen production and allergies and lead to exacerbated asthma symptoms, heart attacks, heatstroke and mosquito-borne illnesses.

These health impacts of killer heat disproportionately impact those living in lower-income urban communities, a fact that can be traced back to redlining. Taking place in the 1930s, redlining was designed to help mortgage lenders avoid areas identified as lending and insurance risks. However, this practice used racially-biased criteria and negatively impacted poor communities.

While redlining was banned 50 years ago, its effects are still being felt.

In the concrete jungle of cities, heat can be overwhelming. Trees and green spaces can help reduce temperatures; however, in formerly redlined neighborhoods there tend to be fewer trees than in non-redlined neighborhoods.

According to a 2020 study of 108 urban areas nationwide by the Molecular Diversity Preservation International and Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), formerly redlined neighborhoods in almost every city studied were hotter than the non-redlined neighborhoods. Access to air conditioning in these areas may also be limited, causing increases in heat-related illnesses and deaths.

A study of citizens of low-income and segregated areas in St. Louis also found they were at a higher risk of cancer from increased exposure to an unequal distribution of carcinogenic air pollutants.

“[Low-income] communities are much more likely to face grave consequences in terms of their human health, their financial health or generally their ability to cope with these effects,” said Vivek Shandas, co-author of the MDPI study.

Other vulnerable populations include children, the elderly, and those who work outside. In 2018, 60 workers died due to exposure to temperature extremes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data on workplace fatalities.

However, despite these monumental health impacts, little is being done legislatively to combat them. Rather than moving forward with new life-saving and planet-saving legislation, the current administration is moving backward.

The Environmental Protection Agency turns 50 this year. But undermining this monumental celebration are the 95 environmental rules being rolled back under the Trump administration. 95 environmental rules that were put in place to protect not only the health of our planet, but the health of its inhabitants. 58 of these rollbacks are completed and 37 are still in progress.

From gutting laws that implement standards for methane emissions and PM to withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration has failed to consider that lives could be lost because of its actions.

As doctors, nurses and medical schools begin to step into the climate change discussion, public health also enters the conversation. In early January of this year, the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health (MSCCH), a division of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, along with doctors and medical groups wrote a letter to President Trump asking him “to make a New Year’s Resolution to protect Americans’ health, safety and wellbeing by stopping the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.”

“We foresee much greater health harms to all Americans, especially our children and grandchildren, if we do not join with the rest of the world to respond to the climate crisis — because climate change is a public health emergency,” reads the letter.

Groups like MSCCH are working to ensure that public health is always in the conversation around climate change through educating today’s and tomorrow’s health professionals on its impacts.

But dealing with climate change’s health impacts does not rest entirely on doctors’ shoulders.

Healthy behaviors like eating a plant-based diet, walking instead of driving and using sustainable products can help lead to a healthier planet and a healthier population. Beyond making changes in our lifestyles, we also can ensure that our political system works for us and our health.

People care about climate change. According to a preliminary entrance poll conducted by Edison Media Research at the Iowa caucuses, the issue of rising global temperatures was the second-most important issue among Iowa voters.

So why is there a disconnect between the people and the government?

Because those in charge refuse to listen to climate scientists, to the doctors that see climate-related deaths, to the students who hold signs at protests that say “We won’t die from old age. We’ll die from climate change” and “Why should I study for a future I won’t have?”

Our health and the health of future generations is on the line. So when the time comes to vote in November, cast your ballot for the person who is keeping the planet’s health and your health in mind and remember that climate solutions are health solutions.