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Q
Can Climate Change Make You Sick?

Has anyone tried to determine what the effect of global warming will be on human health? I know it is a threat to some animal species, but what about us?

A
Answer (Published 9/18/2008)

Yes. In fact in July, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report on the impact climate change is likely to have on general health in the United States, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. Those at greatest risk are residents of the northern states and the Midwest, where people aren't as used to heat as those in other areas of the country. Overall, the EPA's report found that as temperatures rise we may see more:

  • heat stroke
  • illness due to salmonella (due to heat-related contamination of food and water supplies)
  • drowning due to storm surges
  • heart disease because of rising ozone levels
  • severe attacks of respiratory diseases including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because of poor air quality due to ozone and an increase in wildfires.

The very young, the very old, the poor, and people with compromised immune systems are most likely to be hardest hit.

Another warning, issued in August, 2008, by researchers at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, concerns the impact of climate change on allergy patients. Here, the problem will be earlier and longer allergy seasons with more spring pollen and increased airborne irritants in the fall. More air pollution, ozone and wildfires can also be expected to aggravate asthma, the researchers warned. The review was published in the September, 2008, issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Here are some of the steps the EPA suggested in order to adapt to the anticipated risks:

  • Expand installation of cooling systems in residential and commercial buildings
  • Improve early warning systems for extreme heat
  • Improve infrastructure to keep water clean
  • Increased emphasis on the use of public transit, walking and biking in order to reduce vehicle emission.

The North Carolina researchers also recommended eating locally grown fruits and vegetables and eating less meat to improve health and reduce the human contribution to climate change. I see this as a good first step in breaking our dependence on fossil fuels and joining other advanced nations in pledging to reduce our carbon emissions.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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