What’s the first image that pops into your mind when you hear the phrase “climate change”? If you’re like most people, it’s probably a polar bear or melting iceberg, says Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, an environmental public-health scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
But what people probably should think about is much more personal: their own health. That’s the point of a new consortium, launched earlier this month, of 11 medical associations. Named the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health, the group represents more than half of physicians in the United States.
“Most people don’t realize how many ways extreme weather events and climate change affect our health,” Patz says.
Doctors involved with the Consortium are being encouraged to tell stories of the myriad ways they see climate change’s effects on health and to start conversations with patients about how to mitigate those effects.
Samantha Ahdoot, MD, a pediatrician in Alexandria, Va., shared one such story at the launch of the consortium. Spring arrived in Virginia several weeks early this year, so when one of her teenage patients came to the clinic with symptoms of frequent coughing and chest pain that had caused two days of missed school, Ahdoot prescribed the girl allergy medication a month earlier than usual.
“I don’t remember ever doing that before,” Ahdoot said. “A longer allergy season has been well documented in the U.S. with northern latitudes experiencing the greatest increase.”
Longer-lasting allergy symptoms is one of the most common negative consequences of climate change that doctors see in the United States, along with increased cardiorespiratory disease (associated with poor air quality and heat) and injuries from extreme weather events. But other health risks related to climate change include diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks, infections from contaminated food and water, and mental-health problems. (See “How Climate Change Affects Your Health — and How to Build Resilience” for strategies to build resilience against this mounting challenge.)
A Tipping Point
“This may seem like an unusual topic for physicians, but climate change has become very real for the health of many of our patients,” Mona Sarfaty, MD, MPH, FAAFP, director of the Consortium, said at the launch.
In fact, back in 1997, Patz told the EPA that climate change was a health concern. Several decades of scientific research later, it’s abundantly clear that the adverse health effects of climate change are much greater than any benefits, Patz says.
“We’ve reached the tipping point where the mainstream medical society is now saying, we need to translate that evidence into practice, into our patient treatment,” he says.
Americans may experience the health effects of climate change differently depending on location, doctors said at the launch of the consortium. In addition to the expansion of allergy season in northern latitudes, the Midwest has been hit with more extensive heat waves, the Northeast and Canada are seeing more Lyme disease, and wildfires blazing through the West appear to not only be associated with respiratory conditions, but heart disease as well.
“My physician colleagues used to treat two or three cases a month during tick season; now each of us sees 40 to 50 new cases during each tick season,” Nitin Damle, MD, MS, MACP, president of the American College of Physicians (ACP), says in the Consortium’s report of his clinic in Rhode Island. “Across the country, doctors are seeing more patients struck ill by serious diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile fever. Because of the changing climate and the spread of vectors, we expect that Americans will continue to face new diseases and familiar diseases in new places. I know that doctors need to be ready for this and patients need to understand these dangers.”
What to Do
The good news? Cleaning up the air brings enormous health benefits, Patz says. For example, a recent study found that eliminating one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere costs $30 but saves an average of $200 in healthcare costs. Similarly, driving less enhances air quality to the tune of saving lives: When a team of researchers led by Patz asked what would happen if you eliminated car trips of less than 2.5 miles from the 11 biggest cities in the Great Lakes region, they found that 400 lives would be saved because of the improved air.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Patz says.
Fear of losing that opportunity has spurred some to action, saying that the health consequences of inaction are too dangerous to ignore. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention canceled a summit on climate change and health after the presidential election because, according to one of the organizers, it was assumed the new administration would not be enthusiastic, the event was rescheduled by nonprofit organizations.
“Politics is politics, but protecting the health of our citizens is one of our government’s most important obligations to us,” Edward Maibach, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, another intended speaker for the CDC conference, told the Washington Post. “Climate change is bad for America, and bad for the world, in so many ways. One of these ways is that it is harming our health, already, and is likely to get much worse over the next few decades unless we take action.”
The Consortium aims to continue the conversation from a medical perspective, regardless of politics. To reap the benefits of clean air, it maintains, action is necessary. The best way to do that, according to the report’s conclusion: “We believe the most important action we can take to protect our health is to accelerate the inevitable transition to clean renewable energy.”
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