The Obama administration has released a major new report on how manmade global warming is making Americans sicker—and it's only going to get worse.
Developed over three years and involving approximately 100 climate and public health experts, the 332-page report was based on more than 1,800 published scientific studies and new federal research and was reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences.
The report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, "significantly advances what we know about the impacts of climate change on public health and the confidence with which we know it," according to a White House fact sheet about the report.
"As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health will grow, exacerbating existing health threats and creating new public health challenges and impacting more people in more places," the fact sheet states. "From children to the elderly, every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change, now and in the future."
The report also involved the participation of representatives from a number of federal departments and agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs..
"It's not just about polar bears and melting ice caps," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at a White House event unveiling the report. "It's about our families. It's about our future."
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that climate change affects more people in more ways than doctors are accustomed to seeing. Noting that the report will help doctors to quantify "the sheer number of pathways through which climate affects health," Murthy called out increased pollen, wildfire and air pollution exacerbated by emissions from power plants as emergent climate change-related threats to public health.
Here are nine ways global warming increases health risks.
1. Increased Asthma and Respiratory Illness
The report projects that by 2030, due to “future ozone-related human health impacts attributable to climate change,” the U.S. can expect to see hundreds or even thousands of premature deaths, not to mention increases in hospital admissions and cases of acute respiratory illnesses every single year.
The report underscores the particular impact on children. Due to their immature respiratory and immune systems, kids can expect to experience more episodes of asthma and other adverse respiratory effects due to climate change. "Not being able to breathe is one of the most frightening experiences" a person can have, Surgeon General Murthy said. "We're talking about scary moments for parents and children."
An estimated five million children in the U.S. currently suffer from asthma, the most common chronic disease among children, According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “asthma is the number one reason that children miss school, go to emergency rooms and are admitted to hospitals.”
"Now we're seeing [asthma] worsening because of the heat, the allergens [and air pollution],” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University's public health school.
2. Worsening Allergies
Every spring, flowers bloom and with them, pollen spores are spread throughout the air, increasing allergies. With warming temperatures ushered in by climate change, the pollen season has lengthened, exacerbating the symptoms of hay fever for an estimated 40 million Americans who suffer from allergies, triggering annual healthcare costs of more than $21 billion.
Between 1995 and 2011 in central North America, the ragweed pollen season has increased by as much as 11 to 27 days. That has already had significant impacts on some 6.8 million kids who are susceptible to allergens.
3. Premature Deaths from Extreme Heat
White House science adviser John Holdren underscored the looming threat of increased heat waves, warning that greenhouse gas reductions at this point won't stop fatalities caused by increased temperatures. "We can see thousands to tens of thousands of heat-related deaths in the United States each summer," he warned.
These premature deaths are expected to outpace projected deaths due to extreme cold. The western part of the country, in particular, will experience an increase in both the frequency and intensity of heat waves. Using a 1990 baseline for more than 200 U.S. cities, one model projected an increase of more than 11,000 additional deaths during the summer in 2030, rising to 27,000 more deaths by the summer of 2100.
4. More Cases of Lyme Disease
Between 2001 and 2014, both the distribution and the number of reported cases of Lyme disease increased in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The number is set to increase as warmer temperatures impact both the winter and spring months, leading to an earlier annual onset of the Borrelia bacteria that causes the disease. Research indicates that the geographical distribution of ticks carrying the bacteria is “expected to expand to higher latitudes and elevations in the future.”
5. Increased Risks of Water-Related Illnesses
The nation’s waterways will be increasingly compromised as more frequent and intense precipitation leads to runoff from human and animal waste and agricultural activities, including the use of fertilizers. This increased runoff will contaminate more water, thereby increasing human and animal exposure to water-related illnesses through contaminated drinking water and recreational water, as well as fish and shellfish harvested in contaminated water.
6. Increased Exposure to Contaminated Food
Rising temperature and increased flooding, toxic runoff and drought will lead to increases in both the occurrence and transport of pathogens in agricultural environments, which in turn will increase food contamination risk and human exposure to certain pathogens and toxins.
The report specifically highlights an increased risk of ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP), a food-borne illness caused by eating fish contaminated with toxins produced by dinoflagellates, a type of aquatic microorganism. “There is a well-established link between warm sea surface temperatures and increased occurrence of CFP,” the report states, “and thus concern that global ocean warming will affect the risk of illness.”
There is also the issue of lowered nutritional value for some foods, as rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide can lower the nutritional value of most food crops. A 2014 study in the journal Nature found that increased C02 levels led to significant reductions in zinc, iron and protein in rice, wheat, soybeans and field peas.
7. The Largest Health Impact Will Be on Vulnerable Populations
The report warns that climate change will have the largest health impact on vulnerable populations, including “those with low incomes, some communities of color, limited English proficiency and immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.”
The report underscores the increased lack of potable water for certain vulnerable populations:
Lack of consistent access to potable drinking water and inequities in exposure to contaminated water disproportionately affects the following populations: tribes and Alaska Natives, especially those in remote reservations or villages; residents of low-income rural subdivisions known as colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border; migrant farm workers; the homeless; and low-income communities not served by public water utilities—which can be urban, suburban or rural and some of which are predominately Hispanic or Latino and black or African American communities in certain regions of the country. In general, the heightened vulnerability of these populations primarily results from unequal access to adequate water and sewer infrastructure and various environmental, political, economic and social factors jointly create these disparities.
8. Increased Risk to Health-Related Services Infrastructure
The report points out that extreme weather and other events related to climate change will impact health by “disrupting infrastructure, including power, water, transportation and communication systems, that are essential to maintaining access to health care and emergency response services and safeguarding human health.”
Challenges to public health infrastructure and health care could include inadequate resources for monitoring and surveillance systems, research on health risks of climate change, management approaches, training of health care professionals and practitioners and technology development and deployment.
9. Increased Mental Health Impacts
The physical health impacts caused by climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. But climate change has mental health impacts as well. While experiencing extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods can be highly traumatizing, the existential threat and perception of climate change is also a trigger for a host of psychological stressors. The report states:
The effects of global climate change on mental health and well-being are integral parts of the overall climate-related human health impacts. Mental health consequences of climate change range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts. Other consequences include effects on the everyday life, perceptions and experiences of individuals and communities attempting to understand and respond appropriately to climate change and its implications.
The threat of climate change is a key psychological and emotional stressor. Individuals and communities are affected both by direct experience of local events attributed to climate change and by exposure to information regarding climate change and its effects. For example, public communication and media messages about climate change and its projected consequences can affect perceptions of physical and societal risks and consequently affect mental health and well-being. The interactive and cumulative nature of climate change effects on health, mental health and well-being are critical factors in understanding the overall consequences of climate change on human health.
Estimated Deaths and Billion-Dollar Losses from Extreme Events in the U.S. 2004-2013
Preparation for the Future Are in the Works, but Will It Be Enough?
While the report paints a bleak picture of the future health of American citizens, it also provides an opportunity and impetus to combat the threats posed by climate change. The Obama administration announced the following actions that respond to the challenges outlined by the Climate and Health Assessment:
- Expanding the scope of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children to focus on the impacts of climate change on children’s health
- Developing K-12 educational materials on climate change and health
- A Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, which will provide awards for tribal and territorial health departments to investigate, prepare for and adapt to the health effects of climate change
- An update to the Sustainable and Climate Resilient Health Care Facilities Toolkit, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services
- Designating May 23-27, as Extreme Heat Week, during which federal agencies will take a number of actions to work with community planners and public-health officials to enhance community preparedness for extreme heat events
While these are important initiatives, Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington's public health school, who wasn't part of the report, said the government isn’t doing enough. "The report clearly establishes that climate change is a major threat to public health in the United States,” he said, but "there is a vast disconnect between the magnitude of the problem, as outlined by this report and the response of government health agencies."
Read the entire report.
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The excess carbon dioxide emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution has already raised the Earth's temperature by more than one degree Celsius, increased the risk of extreme hurricanes and wildfires and killed off more than half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. But geologic history shows that the impacts of greenhouse gases could be much worse.
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Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
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