Climate Change Increases Rates of Substance Abuse, Says New Study

High temperatures appear to be driving hospital visits due to alcohol and substance disorders, a new study finds.

Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health examined the link between temperature and hospital visits related to alcohol and other substances like cannabis, cocaine, opioids, and sedatives in New York State.

They used data from 671,625 alcohol- and 721,469 substance-related disorder hospital visits over 20 years and a comprehensive record of daily temperatures and relative humidity.

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People aged 25 to 44 years accounted for most hospital visits across every cause, from 46% of alcohol-related up to 61% of cocaine hospital visits. Males were more likely than women to end up at hospitals due to substance use disorders.

The study found that the higher the temperatures, the more hospital visits for alcohol-related disorders. Such an increase could be attributed to people spending more time outdoors performing riskier activities or consuming more substances when the weather is pleasant. It could also be due to greater dehydration caused by more perspiration or driving under the influence.

For other drug disorders, elevated temperatures also resulted in more hospital visits but only up to a limit of 65.8°F (18.8°C), possibly because, above a certain temperature, people are no more likely to go outside.

The authors note that the link between higher temperature and substance use disorders may be underestimated because the most severe disorders may have resulted in deaths before a hospital visit was possible.

"Public health interventions that broadly target alcohol and substance disorders in warmer weather — for example, targeted messaging on the risks of their consumption during warmer weather — should be a public health priority," says senior author Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, ScD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Public Health.

Health risks are likely to increase with climate change

Climate change, considered the greatest threat to global public health by some scientists, shows no signs of slowing down. The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record, and NASA predicts that 2024 could be even hotter than this year.

This means climate change will continue impacting human health. For instance, heat and prolonged drought periods exacerbate wildfires that produce harmful smoke, causing inflammation and weakening immune systems.

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Rising temperatures have resulted in an extended allergy season and increased pollen concentrations, making hay fever worse.

Climate change has increased indoor and outdoor pollution, which causes respiratory issues, exacerbates asthma, and poses additional risks for people with cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease.

As temperatures are rising, conditions have become conducive to the spread of insect-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, malaria, and dengue fever.

A recent study found that emergency visits and inpatient admissions for extreme heat cost the U.S. healthcare system more than $1 billion per year, and the situation is projected to continue worsening.

An increase in hospital visits due to substance abuse in hot weather is only one example of how climate change negatively impacts human health.

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