The Cleveland Plain Dealer: Climate change is making Americans sick, nation’s medical societies warn

Featuring Dr. Aparna Bole, a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ environmental health executive committee.

By Brie Zeltner, The Plain Dealer
on March 15, 2017 {Reposted, view original article}

The newly formed Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health–an alliance of 12 of the nation’s medical societies–released a report outlining how climate change is already threatening health, and what can be done about. In Ohio, heat waves, extreme precipitation events and decreased air and water quality are already taking a toll on patients, the group says. (John Kuntz/Advance Ohio)

Eleven national medical societies representing more than half of the nation’s doctors came together today to warn about the ongoing health impacts of climate change and to advocate for a quicker transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources to help protect patients.

Most Americans don’t realize that climate change is making us sick, these doctors fear, because there has been little public discussion about the connection between the two. Yet extreme weather events, increasing temperatures, and air pollution are already affecting us, they say.

To back this up, the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health–an alliance of 11 of the nation’s medical societies– today released a report outlining research on heat-related deaths, worsening chronic illness, waterborne disease outbreaks, and the spread of infectious disease.

Members of the consortium also spoke of their own patients’ experiences.

“I see the effects of climate change on children here already,” said Dr. Aparna Bole, a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ environmental health executive committee. “Here in Ohio we have high rates of pediatric asthma, so the poor air quality days that we see more and more of are a direct risk to children.”

Climate change can worsen air quality in a number of ways. First, warmer surface temperatures increase smog. Warmer springs and summers in the region have also increased the concentration of pollen and ragweed and lengthened their growing seasons, aggravating allergies.

“All those things directly impact kids with asthma and cause more attacks,” Bole said.

“I think a lot of people think about climate change as a future and theoretical event, not something that’s already happening and already affecting the health of people in our region.”

Michelle Timmons, a Columbus resident and early member of the Moms Clean Air Force, a project partly funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, has seen the effects of climate change on her family’s health for years.

Her youngest son, now 14, has had asthma since he was a baby, she said. The disease is “rampant” in her family, Timmons said: Half of the eight children in her family, who grew up in Steubenville had asthma. And Timmons was a participant in the Harvard Six Cities study which documented the health effects of air pollution over several decades.

“When I started looking at these things and realizing these connections I got involved,” she said. “I don’t think many people are aware.”

The health impacts of climate change (like climate change itself) vary widely by location. In Ohio and the Midwest, for example, increased heat wave intensity and frequency, increased humidity, and degraded air and water quality are the biggest threats to health, according to the Congressionally mandated U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2014 National Climate Assessment.

As the nation’s population becomes more concentrated in large urban areas, particularly big cities, more of the population will also be vulnerable to climate change-related flooding and life-threatening extreme heat because of aging infrastructure.

Other populations are more vulnerable to these climate-related changes, too.

“What’s worse is that the harms are felt most by children, the elderly, Americans with low-income or chronic illnesses, and people in communities of color,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the consortium’s director and a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Here are some of the ways climate change is already affecting our health, laid out in the consortium’s report and backed up by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Climate Assessment:

Heat Waves

While the worst warming in our region has been in the northern parts of the Midwest, major heat waves have increased over the last six decades, and mortality increases by 4 percent during heat waves.

As summer temperatures have shifted to warmer than average, extreme events have become more common and affected more people.

The summers of 2011 and 2012 were particularly hot in Northeast Ohio. On July 20th, 2011, the majority of the Midwest experienced temperatures over 100 degrees, while the whole country was under a heat alert that month.

In 2003, during a major European heat wave, 14,802 people died in France alone, mostly older adults in apartments without air conditioning. In Chicago in the mid-1990’s almost 500 people died during a July heat wave.

Air and water quality

Poor air quality that fails to meet national ambient air quality standards due to  increasing ground-level ozone or particulate matter, affects 20 million people in the Midwest.

Ground-level ozone (a key component of smog) is associated with many health problems, such as diminished lung function, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma, and increases in premature deaths.

Extreme precipitation events– that’s heavy rains and flooding here in the Midwest– are also increasing in frequency due to climate change. They can damage infrastructure, cause power outages and challenge the capacity of water treatment plants, all of which can impact health.

Tick and mosquito-borne disease

Diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes, such as Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, are also affected by increasing temperatures.

Most cases of Lyme disease used to occur in the Northeast, because that’s where the ticks carrying the disease were. As air temperatures rise, ticks can become more active earlier in the season, and their geographic range has spread into the Midwest, though.

The geographic range and spread of mosquito-borne disease such as West Nile and Zika is also largely dependent on temperature.

What can be done?

In response to these health threats, the Consortium, which includes the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American College of Physicians (ACP), called for “concerted action” to “reduce heat-trapping pollution by reducing energy waste and accelerating the inevitable transition to clean renewable energy.”

“Everybody wants clean air and water, and better health,” says the report, which the group will deliver today to members of Congress.

While it may at first seem odd for doctors to be involved in energy policy, Bole said, she sees it as an act to protect public health.

“The science is very clear and there’s some real opportunity to impact patients here and now. If we’re serious about helping people to be healthier, we can’t ignore issues like climate and energy policy.”

Bole said the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recently released policy statements on poverty and food insecurity reflect this understanding that human health is not just determined by what happens inside a doctor’s office.

“It is our job. If I’m serious about taking care of kids, I have to be serious about protecting a healthy environment for those kids.”

“It’s not about Republicans and it’s not about Democrats,” Timmons said. “It’s about preserving a healthy life for our children.”