Climate change and your health

By Dr. Georgia Milan – Originally posted on June 11, 2017 by Idaho State Journal

It is ironic that the day after Donald Trump declares that the U.S. will not participate with the rest of the world in reducing climate change and carbon pollution, the first West Nile Virus mosquito of the year in Idaho is discovered, in Bannock County. West Nile Virus can cause symptoms from a flu-like syndrome to encephalitis and death.

It first appeared in the U.S. in 1999 and medical teams from around the world have reported that climate change is the major cause of its spread. Now it is found in all 48 contiguous states. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 5 who are infected will develop a fever with other symptoms.

The most severe manifestation is meningitis and encephalitis. 1 in150 persons who contract the infection will die from the disease. There were over 2,000 cases reported in the U.S. last year and many cases are never reported. Elderly people, especially over 75, are most susceptible to brain injury and death. There is no medicine to treat this disease and no vaccines to prevent it. We need to look at the cause of this disease being in Idaho — a changing climate.

Doctors have become increasingly alarmed about the effects of climate change on human health. Last year there was a meeting of medical associations that represented over half the doctors in the U.S. The purpose of the meeting was to take action to prevent climate change and prevent the cascade of illnesses that it causes. The first step is to educate our patients.

In addition to West Nile Virus, other illnesses, like Lyme disease, are spreading westward because of an increase in the number and geographic range of disease-carrying mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks.

The evidence shows that increasing temperatures, too much or too little rain, and severe weather events are creating these conditions. For example, the parasitic tick that carries Lyme disease is reported in nearly half the U.S. counties now, up from 30% in 1998. Other parts of the country are dealing with dengue fever and chagas disease. There is concern that malaria could re-emerge in this country.

Other problems physicians are dealing with in greater numbers are allergies and asthma. Warmer temperatures lead to a longer pollen season, and increased carbon dioxide in the air leads to higher pollen levels and more potent pollen.

Over the last 30 years, I have been dismayed at the growing number of people and children with allergies who cannot play sports, enjoy the outdoors, and whose work is affected by their symptoms. Allergies often lead to or worsen asthma. The incidence of asthma over the last ten years has risen dramatically. Poor air quality adds to the problem.

Also, as we know in Idaho, wildfires are on the rise. The wildfire season in the West, on average, is now 78 days longer each year compared to the period between 1970-1985. We have seen some of the hottest and longest fires in the last 20 years. Contributing factors are earlier snowmelt, hotter summer temperatures, and drier soil.

Some of my patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma have to leave their homes in August and September and live with relatives who do not live in fire areas.

Research on wildfires has shown that people living in counties affected by wildfire plumes (which can be many 100’s of miles from the actual fire) have a 50 percent increase in trips to the emergency departments from respiratory illnesses like COPD, asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis. The smoke also causes a spike in emergency department visits for heart disease. People with heart disease are especially sensitive to the particles from wildfires.

Higher temperatures can lead to heat-related illness and death from heat stroke and dehydration. The people at greatest risk are outdoor workers, student-athletes, city dwellers and people who lack air conditioning. People with chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are also especially vulnerable.

We know there has been a rise in average temperature in Idaho and this is predicted to increase to as much as 5 degrees F within this century. Sometimes it is hard to imagine that a few degrees can make such a radical difference in our world and health, but as doctors, we see that just as even a small chronic elevation in temperature in the body inhibits normal health, a small increase in temperature of the planet can cause a failing system.

Western states are experiencing earlier snow melts which lead to more flooding, less water available for agriculture and less restoring of the water supply. These conditions and warmer temperatures are causing more drought conditions which affect health by threatening agriculture, water supplies, and food production.

As predicted, those most affected by climate change are the young, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses and lower income groups. So vulnerable are the young, that the World Health Organization estimates that children younger than 5 will suffer 88% of the disease burden of climate change.

The best part of being a doctor is that I can help people plan how to have long, healthy lives. I can help prevent illnesses. We can collectively prevent a lot of the health issues mentioned above. In the Paris Agreement, a country’s reduction of greenhouse gases is a key component. There is also a need to reduce heavy industrial pollution, including those from electrical utilities, and tail-pipe emissions, among other sources.

Incentives need to be in place to develop improvements in solar panel cost and efficiency along with other alternative fuel uses. (Idaho still relies on 1/3 of its electricity from coal plants.). The Paris Agreement helps to initiate improvements in forestry management, “green” building designs, and efficient public transportation, among other improvements. Climate change is happening. It is caused by human actions. Climatologists (97%) are in agreement.

Knowing all of this, it is unbelievable to think that the U.S. has joined Syria and Nicaragua in being the ONLY countries not participating in a worldwide agreement to save human health and mitigate climate change.

The U.S. has historically been the main cause of carbon pollution and climate change. Now we turn our backs on, not only the world, but our own health and children. We must make our leaders who are in denial, or just don’t care, represent us who DO advocate for life and health. Since when does economic wealth to the few win over the lives of our families?

Morally and spiritually, we have an obligation to the lives of our children, grandchildren and those future generations who rely on us to care about them. No matter how far your compassion extends, at least extend it to your family. Life IS precious, especially a healthy life.


Dr. Georgia Milan of Pocatello has given lectures on the topic of climate change and human health, and has done research on Idaho’s impact on global warming.