How climate change impacts your health

How climate change impacts your health

Drawing of lungs inhaling pollution

[3 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Climate change drives bigger weather events, all of which have health implications. 
  • Providence clinician Dr. Brian Chesebro explains how climate change affects our health on a daily basis and during extreme weather events.
  • Drought, heat, pollution and wildfires are just some of the ways climate change impacts health. 

When we think about climate change, we usually conjure up ideas of hotter summers, colder winters and bigger floods—big events that are finite. But those big weather events are born out of our ever-evolving climate crisis and they are escalating. We find ourselves living through more “heat domes” and wildfires that are now the norm.

With all the “heavy” going on in the world with COVID-19 and social justice concerns, we may not want to think about how climate change affects our personal health, but the truth is it does. Climate change intensifies existing health threats or conditions and, if left unchecked, changes to the climate will usher in new health threats.

Brian Chesebro, M.D. and Medical Director of Environmental Stewardship for Providence is a passionate crusader seeking to help people understand the interplay between climate change and our health.

“We know the risk factors of other health issues very well,” explains Dr. Chesebro. “We understand about smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or physical inactivity. These are common modifiable risk factors in our lives that have direct impacts on our health. But we, patients and clinicians, need to recognize that environmental factors also have a huge influence on our individual and collective health.”

How does climate change affect your health?

Droughts, heat, pollution and wildfires – climate change drives bigger weather events and all of those have health implications. From heat stroke to increasing respiratory disease, there is an ever-expanding body of evidence that shows the personal health impacts of climate change. These impacts fall into 5 categories:

  • Extreme heat-related illnesses
  • Respiratory health
  • Physical danger
  • Water and food scarcity
  • Vector-borne illnesses (disease resulting from infections by parasites, bacteria and viruses)

“In addition to these extreme events being more common and more severe,” Dr. Chesebro notes, “we also have to think about the vulnerabilities of our patients and how well they can adapt to changing environments. For example, as our population ages, they become more vulnerable to heat and heat-related illnesses.  This is an issue we must address, because it’s already happening.”

Impact of extreme heat on health

Research shows that there is a direct link between increased deaths and extreme heat events. And while extreme heat events have been happening in other countries for some time, such as northern India, they are happening at home, too.

The “heat dome” that hit the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2021 is a prime example. During this extreme heat event, over 500 people died from heat-related complications in Oregon.

Extreme heat events can trigger a variety of physical conditions, including:

  • Heat stroke – this occurs when the body is no longer able to regulate its temperature through sweating. When the body cannot cool down, that is an emergency situation.
  • Dehydration – with extreme temperatures comes excess sweating. If you are unable to replenish the water and electrolytes lost to sweating, dehydration sets in. Severe dehydration can lead to dangerous complications for your body’s organs.
  • Respiratory problems – higher temperatures mean an increase in air pollutants. People with chronic lung diseases or respiratory concerns may experience worse lung health during extreme heat.

Respiratory health and climate change

Climate change impacts the air we breathe. It’s an obvious impact when facing a wildfire and rapidly diminishing air quality, but our respiratory health faces daily challenges. For instance:  

  • Air pollution – Rising temperatures, especially in urban heat islands, cause the amount of air pollution to rise. That gives way to respiratory diseases, the need for more respiratory medications and poor lung health.
  • Wildfire smoke – Extremely poor air quality can happen during wildfire season, even if the fire is not in your city. Weather patterns move smoke across the US and bring respiratory irritants and air pollution with it.
  • Allergens – Warming temperatures mean our pollen seasons are growing longer and more intense. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you might notice that allergy season feels longer.

Physical and mental dangers of climate change

Climate change also brings physical dangers right to peoples’ doorsteps. This was deeply felt during the summer of 2020 when wildfires raged across Oregon. “We had many caregivers lose their homes in southern Oregon during that wildfire,” explains Dr. Chesebro. “We had caregivers in the Portland area who had to evacuate their homes in the middle of the night and we had to evacuate patients from Providence hospitals and facilities, too.”

Evacuating homes and hospitals results in extreme mental stress, for patients and caregivers. And for some, there is the very real threat of heat, poor air quality, and loss of life when wildfires get close to communities.

Water and food scarcity concerns with climate change

With the rising temperatures, changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, climate change affects our water and food supply, too. Much of the Pacific Northwest and Southwest face drought conditions that persist through the seasons. This results in lower water reserves and, overtime, will lead to water scarcity.

Water scarcity also affects our food: less water and warmer temperatures means lower crop yields. “Water scarcity is an issue that carries serious health impacts,” says Dr. Chesebro. “Without access to clean water, or to water at all, health will invariably suffer forcing the migration of people and populations.”  

Clean water and healthy food is undeniably critical to public health. Healthy foods benefit our hearts and clean water means we aren’t exposed to waterborne diseases such as E.coli or giardia.

Increased disease transmission and climate change

As the climate warms, the range of vector-borne diseases expands. These are diseases that come from an infection transmitted to humans by other animals. Think ticks, fleas and mosquitos which transmit infections via blood and biting.

In the past, vector-borne illnesses were most apparent in areas close to the equator. Rising temperatures mean the vectors can travel further and infect more people. Examples of vector-borne illnesses include:

  • Malaria
  • Dengue fever
  • Lyme disease
  • West Nile virus
  • Zika virus

Climate change means we will see these diseases further north and they will spread to more people. Many of these illnesses carry risks to pregnant women, require hospitalization or may result in death.

Protecting your health during a climate crisis

Acknowledging the impacts of climate change can feel overwhelming amidst an unprecedented time of uncertainty, but it’s necessary work. Dr. Chesebro explains: “Providence is a health system with a core value of justice. We must consider climate justice within the communities that we serve, both the people we serve now and the people who are not yet born yet- our children, our grandchildren. To take no action is an injustice against them.”

While Providence takes action to meet its goal to be carbon negative by 2030, you can take actions to protect your health during a climate crisis. Dr. Chesebro recommends two major actions: be prepared and be informed.

Be prepared

If you live in an area that is regularly affected by climate crises, make sure you fill your prescriptions regularly and have everything you need to stay indoors for a couple of days. “It’s important to be prepared and have your medications filled beforehand so you don’t have to go outside and expose your lungs to poor air quality,” explains Dr. Chesebro.

Treat preparation for a climate crisis like any other disaster: have food and water stored, easy-to-access numbers if you need help, and an action plan if you have to evacuate. If you live in a wildfire prone area, be sure to purchase high-quality air filters beforehand.

Be informed

Knowing your body and what’s happening in your region means you can take better care of your health. Dr. Chesebro recommends that you talk with your primary care physician if you have a chronic disease to make sure you know what’s normal for you and what might be exacerbated by a climate crisis, such as heat or smoke.  “It’s important to know where your personal danger threshold is so you know how to protect yourself.”

At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. Climate change is a global health crisis, and we hope the insights and advice provided by Dr. Chesebro offers some hope that our collective response is needed to preserve the planet for future generations.

Learn more about how Providence is investing in programs to be a leading steward of environmental sustainability.

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