Climate change is making us sicker

Originally posted on August 9, 2019 by Dr. Homan Wai in The Roanoke Times.

Chances are you’ve noticed that it’s been very hot outside lately. More than 1,000 Virginians had to seek emergency medical care for heat related illness in July alone. This is almost double the amount from the same period in 2018.

But extreme heat is not just a problem here in Virginia. Wildfires recently burned from Siberia to Greenland to Alaska at an unprecedented magnitude. Even the Arctic is literally on fire.

The environmental impact of human activities in the 21st century is not as visible as the black smoke gushing from chimneys and industrial factories during the last century. But make no mistake-air pollution remains a clear and present danger to our health.

Carbon dioxide is released by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Its skyrocketing concentration in our atmosphere over the past century is trapping heat and warming the Earth like a blanket. This warming, and other associated changes in our climate, is causing a range of health-related effects. As a physician, I am deeply concerned about these health impacts of our warming and increasingly unstable climate.

Longer and hotter summers are causing more heat-related illnesses, more allergies, and more exacerbations of lung and heart diseases. Extreme heat like we are experiencing can even be deadly. The human body has a few tricks up its sleeve to regulate high temperature, such as sweating. But prolonged exposure to extreme heat can overwhelm the body’s ability to cope and result in dehydration and markedly elevated body temperature called hyperthermia. This unfortunately happened just a few weeks ago to a 32-year-old mother of three in the nearby Maryland city of Severn. While hiking with her husband and friends, she tragically died with hyperthermia being a major factor. While everyone is at risk of hyperthermia under the right conditions, children, the elderly, teenage athletes, and outdoor workers are especially vulnerable.

Due to rising concern about the health effects of climate change, I, along with my colleagues in the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and over 70 other medical organizations, endorse the U.S. Call to Action on Climate, Health, and Equity released by The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The Call to Action outlines ten priority actions, aiming to strengthen U.S. commitments under the Paris agreement with transition away from coal, oil, and natural gas to clean, safe, and renewable energy and energy efficiency. It looks to the transportation, food and farming sectors to make impactful changes and calls for the health and public health sectors to be leaders in the effort. It also emphasizes resilience and a just transition that benefits citizens on all steps of the socioeconomic ladder.

The health community in Virginia and beyond is speaking out on the urgent need to address the greatest threat to human health that we have ever faced. However, our state and federal policymakers must join with us to find policy solutions that can provide the cure to the climate crisis.

The time to act is now to protect the health of Virginians. Virginia’s General Assembly election is coming up this November. Ask your candidates what they plan to do to protect your family from climate change. The health of you and your family depends on it.


Dr. Homan Wai is an Internal Medicine physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital and serves on the Steering Committee of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action.