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EarthTalk - What are the major public health impacts of climate change?

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Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk:

What are the major public health impacts of climate change and what’s being done on the public health side to mitigate these risks?

Jane Sherwood, Ocala, FL

Public health experts have worried about climate change for decades, but accelerated warming globally has now led to a reexamination of just how bad our greenhouse gas sins might be affecting our own health and well-being. More heat-related illnesses and infectious diseases, lower air quality, food and water insecurity, and a heightened risk of natural disasters are a few of the ways climate change is wreaking havoc on our mental and physical health.

Heat-related illnesses are a prominent concern. Rising temperatures amplify the rate and intensity of heatwaves, leading to heat exhaustion, heatstroke and aggravation of pre-existing conditions. Vulnerable people like the elderly, children and those with chronic illnesses, face heightened risks. A recent update to the Lancet Countdown, a yearly survey of climate change health impacts, found that global heat deaths could increase by 370 percent in coming years if we don’t significantly rein in carbon emissions. Infectious diseases find favorable conditions to thrive and spread due to changing climate patterns. Warmer temperatures expand the geographic range of disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks, resulting in the spread of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease and Zika virus. And changes in rainfall patterns and temperatures affect water and foodborne diseases, exacerbating public health risks.

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Air quality worsens as climate change increases smog formation, triggers wildfires and increases pollen. These factors aggravate conditions like asthma and allergies, leading to more respiratory illnesses. Food and water insecurity arise from altered precipitation patterns impacting crop yields and water availability. Droughts, floods and extreme weather events disrupt food production, leading to malnutrition and shortages. Contaminated water sources from floods or poor sanitation lead to waterborne diseases.

Moreover, mental health is affected by the psychological toll of climate-related disasters, loss of livelihoods, displacement and a looming sense of uncertainty about the future. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders are increasingly observed in affected communities.

It’s important to ID links between climate change and public health, but it’s another matter entirely to mitigate them. Policymakers are working on adaptive measures that seek to enhance public health systems to better cope with climate-related health challenges. These include improving disease surveillance, early warning systems for extreme weather events, and capacity building in healthcare facilities to handle increased patient loads. Meanwhile, government entities at every level need to implement climate-friendly policies and practices—heat wave preparedness plans, insect control programs, promoting sustainable practices for food and water security—in order to model good behavior for their constituencies.

Collaboration among various sectors is essential to tackling the complex intersection of climate change and public health. By implementing robust policies, fostering community resilience and prioritizing public health in climate action plans, we can build a healthier, more resilient future.

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