Seven ways climate change could kill you (really)

From roasting sidewalks to apocalyptic allergy seasons, here are the ways researchers predict a changing climate will affect your health

Boy wearing mouth mask against air, istock photo
Boy wearing mouth mask against air, istock photo

What do allergies, heart attacks, salmonella outbreaks, and depression have in common? Give up? Well, most Americans don’t know either, according to an October report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

The answer is that they’re all symptoms of a warming planet – just some of the health problems that experts say we can expect as temperatures rise.

But when the Yale Project asked Americans what climate change has to do with their health, the nation basically flunked. Only one in four respondents could name a health problem related to global warming. Of those, only 5% could identify a consequence other than respiratory conditions, like asthma, or harm from extreme weather conditions, like heat stroke.

Unfortunately, the list of potential ailments is much longer.

The World Health Organization predicts that climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year around the globe between 2030 and 2050, primarily from malaria, diarrhea, heat exposure and malnutrition.

The health threat will be worse in developing nations, where people are generally more exposed to the elements and advanced medical care and sanitation are less available. But studies show that Americans won’t be exempt, especially those who live in the nation’s low-income communities, children and the elderly.

John Balbus, senior advisor for public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, says that even the American medical community isn’t as familiar with climate change as it should be. “The health sector doesn’t normally focus on environmental issues,” Balbus says. “There’s more focus on the issues that come in the door that we can treat immediately, and climate change has been perceived as a future problem, not an imminent one.”

But imminent it is, especially after 2014 took the prize as the hottest year on record.

Last year, more than 300 of the country’s leading climate experts, including Balbus, signed their names to the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a comprehensive look at global warming in the US. Unless we dramatically curb our emissions. Here’s what the research says we can look forward to:

1. Bug bites that kill
Disease-carrying insects will see their North American habitats widen with climate change, putting more people at risk for Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and West Nile virus, to name just a few.

The US will be better positioned than poorer countries to control pest vectors, but that doesn’t leave the country entirely protected. Some diseases that are almost never encountered here, like Dengue fever, will also expand their reach with warmer weather. An additional 2 billion people could be exposed to Dengue by 2080, making it more likely that it will cross US borders, or that Americans traveling abroad will come in contact with it. “If Ebola taught us anything,” Balbus says, “it’s that even if diseases don’t start here, they can come here.”

2. Cough, wheeze, hack

The number of Americans with asthma has been on the uptick for years, rising from 7.3% in 2001 to 8.3% in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Across the country, 25.7 million adults have the condition, and that number is expected to keep growing.

Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a lead NCA author, explains that there is a direct correlation between compromised breathing and spiking temperatures. In the decades to come, “it will be harder to get a lungful of air,” Knowlton says.

Hotter weather will increase ground-level ozone and particulate air pollution, while the smoke from drought-driven wildfires (which burned an average of 5.7 million acres each year between 2005 and 2014) will contain toxic levels of nitrogen and carbon monoxide. All this increased air pollution will result in as many as 1,000 to 4,300 additional premature deaths in the US each year by 2050.

3. Empty calories and pesticide soup

As growing seasons become more precarious, lower yields and higher prices could become the norm in American agriculture. Consumers in a country already first in the world for obesity will feel even more pressure to buy cheap, unhealthy meals.

Because carbon dioxide alters the nitrogen balance in soil, robbing plants of protein and micronutrients, even once healthy foods won’t be as nutritious.

Food safety could become more difficult to control, too. Additional heat and moisture encourage bacteria growth, from salmonella in meat to aflatoxin in corn.

Many agronomists believe that climate change is already triggering more pernicious weed growth and more virulent pest varieties. “Most of modern agriculture is geared to planting one variety of a crop over hundreds or thousands of acres,” says Dr. Lewis Ziska, plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a contributor to the NCA.

Ziska worries that farmers will turn to heavier doses of pesticides and herbicides to ward against crop losses, exposing farmworkers to toxic chemicals. The best way to ensure American harvests, he says, is to move away from the one-crop model: “Diversity in how and what we farm will be key to adaptation in agriculture.”

4. An allergy season that goes on forever

Everybody loves a warm day, but it’s the cold ones that keep pollen in check. With more frost-free days and higher average air temperatures, plants are flowering longer and earlier. More C02 in the air actually spurs plants to produce allergens.

But don’t bank on finding relief indoors. Hotter weather and an increase in rainfall will contribute to household mold and fungi growth.

5. Summer in the city

As heat waves become more severe, NRDC’s Knowlton says that cities will bear the brunt of the damage. With so many metal buildings and asphalt streets, urban centers tend to trap heat. City hospitals could see more cardiovascular, kidney and respiratory disorders, along with heat strokes.

6. Too much or too little water

Droughts, floods, monster storms – exactly how you’ll be affected by all these elements depends on where you live. Climatologists predict that deluges like Hurricane Sandy will increasingly threaten the US east coast. But heavier rains will fall on parts of the West Coast too.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the country, inland rivers are expected to flood with greater frequency. To make matters worse, all that water often brings with it infectious diseases and the possibility of sewage contamination.

In more arid regions, drought could not only set off more wildfires but harm water resources and undermine agriculture. In the southwest, drought has also spurred the spread of sometimes-fatal Valley Fever, a fungal pathogen inhaled through airborne dust and soil.

7. Sunny days that make you dreary

Researchers have found a link between high temperatures and a rise in suicide rates and dementia. Certain medications for extreme mental disorders like schizophrenia interrupt the body’s ability to regulate temperature, making patients more vulnerable to heat stroke and hypothermia. Of course, nothing is more stressful than watching your home be consumed by wildfire or flooded by storm surge.

‘A matter of life and death’

All this may sound apocalyptic, but scientists hope that by educating people about the health impact of climate change they can do more than stoke fear.

“Talking about health helps to personalize climate change, to make it less a matter of just polar bears,” says Balbus, pointing out that the first step to protecting the health of Americans – and billions of others all over the world – is to immediately curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we don’t demand dramatic action now, this won’t just be a matter of academic interest,” Knowlton says. “It will increasingly be a matter of life and death.”

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