Thursday, April 23, 2009

Climate Change and Health: Heat-Related Issues

A thermal image of Atlanta, GA in May 1997.
Daytime temperatures averaged 80
°F (26.7°C) but some surface temperatures reached 118°F (47.8°C).
Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Climate change is going to have various impacts on health and society. Since the Administration is open to addressing it, advocacy messages surrounding the health implications of climate change will be important. President Obama has prioritized energy, health care, and education as three areas that are critical to our economic future.
Climate change and health are the intersection of these priorities and awareness about the possible health impact of climate change is crucial so that we can promote research and action to lessen these effects.

Heat related illnesses and death are expected to increase due to climate change, mostly caused by cardiovascular and respiratory issues associated with higher temperatures. Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., and was responsible for more than 3,400 deaths between 1999 and 2003. According to the CDC, heat waves already cause more deaths per year than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. They are likely to increase in intensity and frequency as temperatures rise over the coming decades.

The urban heat island effect traps heat in concrete and asphalt, which can cause temperatures in urban areas to range up to 22°F (12°C) warmer than the surrounding countryside. Some researchers have predicted there could be a 47-95% increase in heat-related premature deaths due to climate change in the New York City region.

When I was working at a planning commission in New Hampshire, I learned that chemicals like carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulate matter are measured, and state environmental departments will issue air quality alerts, typically in the summer when heat and weather intensify the problem.
Excessive heat will contribute to an increase in air quality alerts, limiting outdoor activities. In general, healthy people will have an increased risk of developing respiratory issues like asthma and allergies.

Approximately 40 million Americans have indoor/outdoor allergies, including 10-20% of Americans who suffer from ragweed allergy, or hay fever.
One study has shown that ragweed grew faster and produced more pollen in urban areas, with temperatures that were 3.4° to 3.6°F (1.8° to 2.0°C) higher and greater CO2 levels than cooler rural environments.* Allergies (hay fever) is the fifth leading chronic disease for adults, causing nearly 4 million missed or lost workdays annually, and costing more than $700 million in total lost productivity.**

* Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 111, Issue 2, Pages 290-295
"Chronic Conditions: A Challenge for the 21st Century," National Academy on an Aging Society, 2000

This is Part 2 of 7 in our Climate Change and Health series.
Part 1 - Climate Change and Health
Part 2 - Heat-Related Issues
Part 3 - Malaria
Part 4 - Lyme Disease
Part 5 - Mental Health
Part 6 - Water-borne Disease
Part 7 - Extreme Weather Events

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