The Climate Crisis Affects the Most Vulnerable

by Ira Dreyfuss, Public Affairs Advisor,
Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health

September 2020

Physician researchers affiliated with the Medical Society Consortium are documenting, in medical journal articles, the effect that the climate crisis continues to have on the lives of the vulnerable, and on the capacity of our health care system to protect them.

One article finds an increase in premature, stillborn, or underweight babies in women who were exposed to high heat or air pollution while they were pregnant. The other article predicts that emergency medicine will have to shoulder an ever-greater burden, notably because of need in vulnerable populations, as the climate crisis spreads its effects more widely and creates more intense natural disasters.

The systematic literature review article on mothers’ and babies’ health was in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed monthly open-access publication of the American Medical Association: Association of Air Pollution and Heat Exposure With Preterm Birth, Low Birth Weight, and Stillbirth in the US. Authors include Dr. Nathaniel DeNicola of Washington, who is the Consortium representative from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The report, featured in The New York Times, looked at 57 studies from January 1, 2007 to April 30, 2019, with data on more than 32 million U.S. births. It found an increase in risk of preterm birth and low birth weights associated with higher ozone and particulates, notably among people with asthma and members of minority populations, especially Black mothers. Studies on heat also found significant associations between heat and adverse birth outcomes.

The article on emergency medicine projects increasingly more challenging times for the field as the climate crisis intensifies. “Emergency medicine is likely to bear a large burden, with its focus on urgent and emergency care, through its role as a safety-net provider for vulnerable populations and as a leader in disaster medicine,” it says.

However, the article says, emergency medicine can be a leader in climate crisis response in several areas: clinical practice improvements, building resilient emergency departments and health care systems, adaptation and public health engagement, disaster preparedness, mitigation, research, and education.

The report is in Annals of Emergency Medicine, a publication of the American College of Emergency Physicians: Clinical Implications of Climate Change on US Emergency Medicine: Challenges and Opportunities. Coauthors include Drs. Cecilia Sorenson and Jay Lemery of Denver, and Dr. Renee Salas of Boston. Dr. Sorenson was a Climate Health Fellow with the Consortium in 2018; Dr. Lemery is a member of the Consortium Board of Advisors. Dr. Salas is a regular participant in Consortium meetings.