Are your allergies especially bad this year? Here in Boston, the trees are in full bloom and local experts are complaining that this may be one of the worst allergy seasons we’ve seen in a while due to the late arrival of spring-like temperatures. But a new federal report shows that climate change may lead to longer, more intense, pollen seasons, and dramatically impact other aspects of our health that will especially affect the most vulnerable populations.
The National Climate Assessment report, assembled by a team of more than 300 experts, assesses the current and future impacts of climate change. Federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the massive report out this week produced by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee. The human health effects detailed in the report include increased rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as premature death and injuries because of extreme weather events.
The lead author of the report’s Northeast section, Cornell University professor David Wolfe, told The Boston Globe that many of the projected impacts of climate change “are happening now.”
Exacerbated allergens are one of the results of warmer seasonal air temperatures, not only because the blooming times of allergenic plants shift, but the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the ozone can also increase pollen count and exacerbate allergies, as well as asthma.
From 2001 to 2010, the number of Americans with asthma increased from 7.3 percent to 8.4 percent, which the report says will challenge the health care system. According to the USDA, as a result of temperature increases, from 1995 to 2011, the largest changes in ragweed pollen season were seen in central North America, which saw the length of the allergy season expand by as much as 11 to 27 days.
“I think this report is understated, so the language in this is extremely, carefully chosen, because the wealth of information known about health effects has really snowballed in the last few years,” said Dr. Jeff Griffiths, a practicing physician and expert in water-borne diseases and tropical medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, whose research on the relationship between stomach viruses and summer temperatures was cited in the federal report.
Extreme precipitation patterns, including rain and snow, can cause weather patterns from flooding to blizzards and drought—which not only physically threaten people’s safety, but also impact the ecosystem. This impact has larger effects on our health with regard to nutrition, geographical distribution of food, and increasing rates of water-borne and insect-bearing diseases.
“Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases are going through the roof. People’s predictions about how extensive lyme disease would be is really low compared to what we’re actually seeing,” said Dr. Griffiths. “Parasites also needs a certain temperature to live in a mosquito. There was malaria in Boston until 1900, so we certainly have the right kind of mosquitos, and if we have a lot more and one gets here carrying the right kind of parasite, we could see things like malaria transmission again.”
According to the assessment report, climate change will amplify some of the existing health threats, and is expected to dramatically impact children, the elderly population, poor areas, as well as communities of color.
Research has already shown that asthma disproportionately affects certain minority groups and inner-city residents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent National Health Statistics Report, asthma prevalence continues to increase. The latest figures from 2009 show that asthma prevalence is 8.2 percent (17.5 million adults and 7.1 million children), but it’s at a higher rate for black populations and lower for Asian populations. Families with income below the federal poverty levels also have a higher asthma prevalence. This week’s report shows that climate change will only exacerbate these health disparities.
The extreme temperature changes that impact health include longer lasting extreme heat, which can worsen drought, cause wildfires, and increase air pollution risks, according to the report. The hottest days, which previously would only occur once every 20 years, will be approximately 10 to 15 degrees warmer due to higher emissions.
“For someone on the edge, the increasing air pollution could be enough to put them into an ashtma attack, or if they have emphasema it might be enough to hospitalize them, reduce their lung function, and the chance for infections become more common,” said Dr. Griffiths. The tiniest particles can actually get down into the lungs and get absorbed into the blood stream, which can inhibit heart and lung function. Rates of heart attacks and strokes have already gone up right after spikes in air pollution according to the American Lung Association’s 2013 State of the Air report.
The report says that the greatest threat of climate change is its impact as an extreme stressor, which disrupts and social and physical foundations of a community, and leaves those most vulnerable populations at greater risk for long-term impacts on their health. (Remember Hurricane Katrina? New Orleans still has public health concerns.)
The statistics about our future outlined in this more than 800-page report are enough to make you want to ditch your gas-guzzling car for an electric, or better yet, a bike!