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How Does Climate Change Affect Public Health?

Would you talk to a climatologist about health care issues? Recent studies say public health and weather, more specifically, climate change, are more connected than you might think. In fact, a 2010 study of 32 million U.S. births by Environ International states that among 58,681 single births in California, a 10 °F increase in weekly average temperature before delivery was associated with an 8.6% higher risk of preterm birth. For Black mothers, this risk nearly doubles to 15%.

While you may not realize it, climate change is quickly becoming a public health issue. It’s time for health care professionals and patients to take note.

Tevin Wooten, a meteorologist for NBC Boston and former meteorologist for the Weather Channel, recently sat down with AFMC’s Robyn Ledbetter on AFMC TV to discuss the connection between climate change and population health.

Think regionally.

On the most basic level, when you think about the connection between public health and climate change, you have to think regionally. In Massachusetts, where Tevin works now, the community often experiences intense winter storms. They have learned to prepare for these winter storms and find ways to adapt to freezing temperatures. In Arkansas, where Tevin spent the majority of his formative and college years, you may experience a massive snowstorm every five or so years.

“Southern states that experienced a massive cold wave in 2021, like Texas, which just experienced a record low temperature of -2 °F in February 2021, do not have the infrastructures or response measures in place to respond to severe cold fronts,” Tevin says. The same goes with heat waves. Many of us here in Arkansas recall the constant heat warning reminders that went off on our phones when the heat index reached well over 100 in some parts of the state.

The unprecedented heat wave got so bad, in fact, that the Arkansas Department of Health released a warning encouraging people to practice heat safety to mitigate heat stress and other heat-related illnesses. And that’s not even the highest heat index the U.S. experienced.

Nurses and providers are responding to climate-fueled disasters they may not have had to respond to before. Tevin recalls a conversation with a nurse he spoke with who has treated more patients with asthma than she ever has before: “This nurse said, ‘When I started 30 years ago, around 7% of my patients were treated for asthma. Now, that number’s gone up to nearly 25%.’” That significant increase in asthmatic patients can be traced back to an increase in air pollution over the last 30 years.

And as scientists have warned about the increasing threshold of danger from global warming, first responders and health professionals are bound to see other health issues stemming from climate change.

Changing weather patterns also affect vector-borne illnesses.

Tevin also warned about how climate change affects vector-borne illnesses in the United States. “Warmer air holds more moisture, which leads to flooding at abnormal periods of the year. With floods come a migration of mosquitos that carry several viruses with them, including Malaria and Zika Virus."

In the Natural State, until the weather gets just a little cooler, we have to be mindful of ticks while walking around in the woods. Tickborne illnesses, including Lyme Disease, are on the rise across the U.S.

Tevin also explains how shifting migratory patterns of deer and other game common in the South are also increasing our risk of vector-borne illnesses. “Insects who carry diseases are around animals at irregular times. When they sting an animal that we eat, especially around hunting season, those animals are carriers of the diseases that insects give to them,” he says. “When we eat then eat those animals, we are putting ourselves at greater risk for catching those diseases.”

Why are we just now noticing this connection between public health and climate change?

Research and discussion among the scientific and medical communities regarding the connection of these two topics has actually been occurring for over a decade. “Because the public has spent more time indoors, especially during the pandemic, we’ve been forced to be in front of our cellphones and televisions due to quarantine,” Tevin says. “Now, we’re hearing more about these connections in real time. People are beginning to ask more questions because of what we experienced during the pandemic.”

As more people have become aware of this connection, it has become increasingly clear that each and every individual must be aware of this connection and take steps to improve our climate in order to improve public health. For health care professionals on the front lines, it’s important that we take these factors into account with other social determinants of health and learn to ask patients the right questions during their visits.

Widespread change starts at the policy level.

“I am seeing some changes in federal policy to address climate change,” Tevin says. “We’re leaning more on science and on the medical professionals who deal with these correlations every day.”

President Biden recently announced a new initiative called the American Climate Corps to train a group of 20,000 young Americans in high-demand skills for jobs that conserve the environment. This initiative is a huge step toward reducing the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions and finding other resources to use for energy.

Globally, 196 parties adopted the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aims to “increase the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” as well as to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” To reach this goal, global greenhouse gas emissions must decline by 43% by 2030. “We have to make changes relatively quickly,” Tevin says. “That’s why we’re having to implement changes at the policy level.”

Climate change affects public health. As we learn more about the way that our environment shapes the health outcomes of our patients, it is important that we each individually take steps to be more environmentally conscious. The solution is multifaceted. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to climate change. However, if we continue to raise awareness and follow the lead of our national and global leaders to mitigate harmful actions to our planet, we will make the planet a better place to live while also increasing the health of over 8 billion people who live here.

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