Arnold Schwarzenegger told David Axelrod in a recent CNN interview that environmentalist have done a terrible job bringing attention to climate change. It is human nature to build walls around our selves. When we hear about a tragedy in the Middle East, it is easier for us to dismiss it than it is to internalize it. As long as our families are safe, life goes on. The same is true for climate change. Why should one care about the rising sea levels or droughts brought upon in 20 or even 50 years?
More relevant today, is the present health risks that climate change has already caused. Heads are turned when a loved one’s life is at risk. That is when people will start caring.
The air that we breathe
With increased global temperatures comes rising ground ozone levels (smog) and particulate matter(air pollution). The combination of ozone and particulate matter are associated with an increase in asthma prevalence and in hospital admissions due to asthma. Those with decreased lung function from COPD or other pulmonary disease also experience more hospitalizations.
Warmer and longer summers bring more allergens. When the first frost date is continuously pushed back later in the year, allergens hang around longer. In addition, CO2 by itself can cause an increase in plant based allergens. The elevation in pollen along with the increased duration of time they are present, has led to increased sensitization to allergens. Perhaps this is not life threatening, but can significantly affect activities of daily living. Asthma exacerbation (potentially life threatening) again are also increased with increased amounts of allergens.
Flooding from increased precipitation indirectly affects our air. Water infiltrated homes and buildings cause a breeding ground for mold, which lead to poor indoor air quality. In addition to worsening of asthma symptoms, these damp and wet environments are associated with bacterial and viral respiratory infections.
Dry conditions caused by high temperatures, has led to an increase in wildfires throughout the U.S. While a wildfire replenishes nutrients to the ground, a large prolonged fire releases volatile organic compounds along with carbon monoxide. This in turn decreases our air quality.
The water we drink
Increased precipitation and warmer waters from climate change is shifting the biodiversity of our waters. In addition to more frequent toxic allergy blooms, this has also caused an increase in the amount of waterborne diarrheal diseases. These include salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis. Diarrhea is a bad day for a healthy adult but life threatening in a child or in the elderly. Today diarrhea continues to be a leading cause of death in these populations and is a major health concern in developing nations.
Increased temperature is directly linked to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. While heat exhaustion is uncomfortable at the least, heat stroke is potentially deadly. With extreme heat or cold, we normally do a very good job at keeping our internal temperature about the same. Heat stroke happens when that mechanism fails, and we are unable to regulate body temperature. Young children, the elderly, outside workers, athletes are most at risk for heat stroke.
Climate change has already created environments that are more hospitable to disease carrying vectors. Lyme disease, Dengue Fever, Malaria, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and West Nile virus are all examples of pathogens which are transmitted from a mosquito or tick. Climate change is not exclusively responsible but it has contributed to the geographical redistribution of these diseases and vectors. We are seeing incidence of diseases outside of their endemic area.
If you are reading this post, chances are you are not a climate change denier. There are still those however that would rather disregard facts than take responsibility. The polar bears and coastal flooding are too far removed from their lives to care about. If we have intelligent conversations and approach climate change as a health crisis rather than a political tool, we may be able to change some minds.