When you think of climate change, you probably think of problems with ecological health, like drought, rising sea levels, and wildfires. But climate change can also take a toll on personal health, both physical and mental. Bottom Line Health spoke with Micah B. Hahn, PhD, MPH, to learn more.
“The climate crisis is a human health emergency,” Jonathan Patz, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute (GHI), and colleagues wrote in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The editorial points out that “numerous climate-sensitive health risks are scientifically established,” including the risk of death from heat waves, respiratory illness from smog and ozone (which increase when there is more nitrogen dioxide from car exhaust in the air), higher levels of pollen that cause more allergies, physical and mental effects from wildfires, and exposure to infectious diseases like West Nile Virus.
The health impacts of climate change are so pervasive that an article in the March 2021 issue of Academic Medicine called for medical education to include curricula on “climate change and its effect on health.” But you don’t have to wait for your doctor to get up to speed when it comes to climate change and health. You can start protecting yourself today by taking simple precautions and actions.
Warm spells and heat waves
The higher temperatures we are seeing and will continue to see increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illness—and death. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimate that warmer average temperatures caused by climate change could result in 11,562 additional annual deaths among Americans 65 years and older, who are more sensitive to heat stress and more likely to develop heat illness.
There are two types of heat risks: 1) a single day with higher-than-normal temperatures, such as the 108º Fahrenheit recorded in Seattle in June 2021; 2) multiple, consecutive days of warm weather, like the “heat dome” that settled over the West in September 2022 for about a week, setting heat records throughout California, Arizona, and other states in the region.
If you’re faced with high heat, there are several steps you can take to lower your risk:
- Pay attention to heat alerts. The National Weather Service issues heat alerts, which can tell you in advance when a hot day or heat wave is coming—so you can limit exposure. You can find more information at www.weather.gov.
- Limit exposure. When it’s excessively hot outside, try to stay inside. If you must go out, avoid strenuous activity, like exercising. Wear a wide-brimmed hat (to keep the sun off your face) and loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Buy cooling devices in advance. Don’t wait until a heat wave to buy a fan or air conditioner. It’s likely they’ll be sold out. Plan ahead for excessive heat.
- Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated is one of the best ways to reduce the effects of excessive heat. During a hot day or heat wave, try to drink at least 50 ounces of water per day.
- Go where it’s cool. If you can’t cool down your home or apartment, go to places in your community that are cool, like an indoor mall, movie theatre, public library, or cooling center.
- Be extra careful if you’re in a high-risk group. People who are extra-sensitive to heat include those ages 60 and older, pregnant women, people with chronic kidney disease, and people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease, like asthma or COPD.
- Check on your neighbor. If you have a neighbor who lives alone and is elderly or has a hard time moving around, check up on them during a heat wave to see if they need help.
Exposure to smoke is the most direct health impact of a wildfire. Exposure isn’t limited to people near the wildfire. Smoke from wildfires can spread downwind, putting communities far from the fire at risk.
Breathing wildfire smoke can increase your risk of heart attacks, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), long-term heart disease, respiratory distress (shortness of breath), asthma attacks, and even cancer.
In one study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, looked at visits to the emergency room during wildfires in Southern California and found more than double the normal rate of asthma diagnoses, and more than triple the normal rate of shortness of breath.
Here’s how to lower your risk:
- Evaluate air quality. When wildfires are burning, visit www.airnow.gov and enter your ZIP code to learn the air quality where you live. If the quality is below good or moderate, stay indoors.
- Use an air filter. When wildfires are burning, use an air purifier indoors, preferably with a HEPA filter, which removes the fine particulate matter in smoke from the air. Brands favored by a site that specializes in evaluating consumer products for performance and cost include Coway, Winix, Blueair, and Levoit.
- Use other ways to reduce particulates indoors. Close the windows. Get new filters for your central air conditioner. Damp-mop the floor. Wash sheets and clothes more often than normal.
- Increase your intake of olive oil and fish oil. It can’t hurt and, according to scientific research, it may help. In studies conducted at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, both olive oil and fish oil protected blood vessels from the damage typically caused by inhaled fine particulate matter.
- Wear a mask when you go outside. Wearing an N-95 or P-100 mask can block fine particulates from smoke.
As the globe warms, ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes that were confined to a particular area expand their range, putting more people at risk of diseases carried by these insects. For example, West Nile virus was once confined to Africa, but it’s now the most common form of mosquito-caused disease in the United States.
Take these steps to lower your risk:
- Wear mosquito repellant, long sleeves, and pants. Try a product with 20 percent picaridin, a safe, EPA-approved synthetic compound that is as effective as DEET but without the toxic side effects. Put it on your skin and your clothes.
- Eliminate standing water around your house. It’s a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
- After walking through tick country, dry (don’t wash) your clothes. Research shows that putting clothes directly into the drier on high temperature for 50 minutes can kill ticks by desiccating them. (Putting them in the washer doesn’t.) Taking a shower and doing a tick check is also important in order to remove ticks that are crawling or feeding.
Climate Change and Mental Health
Climate change can change your outlook—and not for the better. A study of Alaska’s Swan Lake fire, which burned for nearly four months in the summer of 2019, found that it affected mental health in many ways. As the fire burned, people were anxious for their lives and property. Some people felt claustrophobic, because smoky skies kept them indoors for months. Over the four months, people felt increasingly stressed. The following summer, many experienced stress as other natural disasters like earthquakes struck the area. There was also grief, a sense of loss and helplessness, and mourning for the shattered beauty of the natural environment, as 170,000 acres of trees were reduced to blackened toothpicks. When residents of the area were asked about the best ways to lessen wildfire-related mental health problems, they frequently mentioned:
- Early communication about
- More information about the disaster
- A community-based preparedness program
- Community support for evacuation planning
- Better emergency shelters
- Talking with others about the connection between the disaster and prolonged stress
- Support groups consisting of people who’ve been through the disaster
- Grief counseling.