This is National Public Health Week, and the focus is on the impact of climate change on our nation’s health. Knowing about the risks you face will help you better prepare for the dangers.
PHOTO CAPTION: An evacuated family driven from their San Diego home by the 2007 wildfires. Photo: Michael Raphael/FEMA
Do you have children?
Because they are still developing physically, breathe faster than adults and rely on adults for care, children are more vulnerable. Watch out for:
- Heat waves. Infants and children up to four years old are particularly sensitive to heat and also rely on a care-giver to keep them adequately hydrated.
- Smog and soot pollution. Because their lungs are still developing, children can suffer irreversible lung damage as adults from breathing unhealthy air when young.
- Food- and waterborne diseases. Small children and children living in poverty are at higher risk for falling ill from diseases that climate change will likely exacerbate.
- Stress, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder after disastrous extreme weather events.
Are you over 65 years old?
The U.S. population is aging; by 2030 one fifth is projected to be older than 65. Older adults often have frail health and limited mobility, making them more vulnerable to:
- Heat waves. Older adults with limited incomes may not have air conditioning and may have difficulty getting to air conditioned centers, if available. That can be deadly. The elderly are less resilient to temperature extremes in general.
- Floods and other natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina showed all too clearly how a disproportionate number of senior citizens often suffer or die during a disaster.
Do you have a chronic medical condition?
People with heart problems, respiratory illnesses, diabetes or compromised immune systems are more prone to exacerbated health problems from:
- Extreme weather-related disasters. Disruption of ongoing medical care and medicines is dangerous for the chronically ill.
- Heat waves. People with diabetes are at greater risk of death from heat waves.
- Bad air quality. Stagnant hot air masses and higher ozone and soot concentrations worsen heart and lung conditions. People with diabetes are also more susceptible to harm from air pollution.
- Transmitted disease and illness. People with weakened immune systems, such as those with AIDS or those taking certain drugs to treat cancer, have less ability to fight off diarrhea from waterborne microbes or fevers from spreading viruses or mosquito-borne illnesses.
Are you pregnant?
Pregnant women and their unborn children are particularly susceptible to:
- Food-borne illnesses and other climate-sensitive diseases. Certain medications to treat infections may not be recommended for pregnant women.
- Ill effects from extreme weather disasters. Disruption of health care access, exposure to toxins, unsafe conditions, and psychological stress following disasters can endanger pregnant women and the health of the fetus.
Is your family income on the low end?
An income of $21,200 for four people living in the contiguous 48 states (or $26,500 if you live in Alaska and $24,380 in Hawaii) is considered below the poverty level. Lower-income populations are disproportionately affected by:
- Heat waves. Concentrations of lower-income populations in inner-city neighborhoods often mean a disproportionate number suffer from the heat island effect: tall building and concrete intensify scorching days and stifling nights. People living in dwellings lacking air conditioning or windows that open face a higher risk of death.
- Extreme weather disasters. People with lower incomes may not have the means to evacuate quickly out of harm’s way. Access to medical care is more easily disrupted for lower income individuals. Katrina showed us the devastation that a natural disaster can bring to people living in poverty.
Do you live in an area with unhealthy air quality?
More hot days likely mean more smoggy unhealthy-air days. That’s because sunlight and heat spark a chemical reaction between ground-level ozone and other pollutants to form smog. If you live in an area already plagued by smog and soot, be prepared. Exposure to unhealthy air is not good for anybody but is particularly bad if you:
- Exercise outdoors regularly. On red-alert days, even the healthiest people should not exercise outdoors. Breathing in ozone singes your lungs much like a sunburn and repeated exposure can reduce lung function.
- Work outside. More exposure to polluted air puts you at greater risk of health problems. Working outside in a rural or suburban area is an added risk factor for getting infectious diseases carried by insects and ticks, like Lyme disease, that may proliferate in a warmer climate.
Do you live in a region that is especially prone to harmful climate change?
Some regions of the U.S. may be more affected by particular dangers than others. What can you expect if you live in the following regions?
- Southeast Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Residents of low-lying coastal areas will likely experience the one-two-three punch of more violent storms, strong storm surges and flooding, and coastal erosion. That will mean more damage to buildings and roads and possible contamination of drinking water.
- Southwest: Higher temperatures and less rainfall in an already hot, arid climate will likely strain already taxed water resources. The chances for wildfires and dangerously bad air quality will go up.
- Northwest: Heavy rainfall may lead to flooding and sewage overflow, causing illness and spread of disease.
- The Great Plains: Milder winters and scorching summers could take a toll on the country’s” bread basket” and hinder food production. Residents of cities would particularly suffer from intense heat waves.
- Northeast: Rising temperatures could mean more allergies and spread of diseases carried by insects or animals, such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease.
- Alaska: Melting permafrost and retreating sea ice are already disrupting residents’ lives and subsistence hunting and fishing. Milder temperatures are allowing more pests such as spruce bark beetles to proliferate.