Climate change impacts all aspects of our lives, including our health. From inflammation caused by wildfire smoke to diseases-carrying vectors migrating to new areas, the threats associated with changing climate are here to stay.
2022 was the world's 6th-warmest year on record since 1880, according to the latest report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Millions of Americans have experienced the consequences of climate change firsthand, as the country endured 18 separate disasters, including hurricanes and droughts, damages of which exceeded $1 billion. Moreover, these disasters resulted in the deaths of 474 people.
In 2021, an international group of medical professionals suggested that rising temperatures due to climate change was the greatest threat to global public health. Scientists expect temperatures to continue increasing this year. In 2024, they could set a new global record.
In an interview with Healthnews, Juan Aguilera, MD, PhD, MPH, a director of Translational Environmental and Climate Health at Stanford University, explains how climate change damages our mental and physical health.
Wildfire smoke causes inflammation
Aguilera says that climate change impacts different aspects of our lives. For example, rising temperatures prolong drought periods, leading to the drying of the forests' soils. When weeds and bushes are not hydrated enough, the fires tend to expand and cover wider areas.
Wildfires result not only in public displacement and property damage.
"Smoke contains many different particles that are harmful to human health, with some being small enough to go into the respiratory system and even to penetrate deeply into the circulation," he told Healthnews.
Once in blood circulation, particles cause inflammation which, in the long term, could lead to heart diseases, stroke, hardening of the arteries, and even cancer. According to Aguilera, scientists are now learning that wildfire smoke may also affect the immune system, making people weaker against any other types of diseases.
The effects of climate change are also linked to mental health problems. For example, living in an area where wildfires may occur can be a source of anxiety.
"You never know when a wildfire will occur, how big and wide it is going to be. You may be in danger and need to evacuate your home. Following the news also might be a source making anybody feel anxious," Aguilera, MD, added.
Moreover, harmful particles from wildfire smoke may affect neurons and, therefore, mental health.
"As we learn more about how these smaller particles affect our entire bodies, we can also explain issues related to mental health," he says.
Extreme climate events are more frequent
Climate change also exacerbates extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and thunderstorms, eventually leading to flooding. This causes more humidity within the homes, which can result in mold, Aguilera explains.
For some, mold may cause mild symptoms, such as sore throat, coughing, or wheezing. However, those with asthma or people allergic to mold may have severe reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In 2022, flooding caused by Hurricane Ian led to a spike in potentially deadly infections caused by Vibrio vulnificus, also known as "flesh-eating" bacteria. Over 60 cases of infections and 11 deaths were reported in Florida.
"Mosquitos and other vectors are getting adjusted to conditions where the climate is changing. They reach areas where there usually aren't mosquitos, ticks, or any other vectors," Aguilera added.
Researcher says that as climate changes, the pollen season is expanding to up to ten months; therefore, pollen allergies will become more frequent.
How to protect yourself from pollution?
Air pollution is one of the drivers of climate change. In 2021, about 67 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, research reveals more or more harm of pollution to human health.
For example, a study from last year found that unborn babies have black carbon particles in vital organs, such as the liver, lungs, and brain, as early as the first trimester.
Another study demonstrated that women in their late 40s and early 50s who were exposed long-term to air pollution with nitrogen dioxide and ozone saw increases in their body size and composition measures.
So how to protect ourselves from toxic pollutants? Aguilera says that while not everybody will be able to move out of regions that are exposed to air pollution, we can take some lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the steps is to follow the air quality index, which allows tracking of real-time air pollution conditions on a certain day.
"Vulnerable groups, such as pregnant, elderly people, children, and people with asthma, may want to consider some personal barriers, such as wearing a mask. Depending on your situation, it might be an N95 mask," he says.
In addition, air purifiers may help to trap these particles and reduce the amount of pollution inside the houses.
Not everyone is affected equally
Research has proved that climate change and pollution disproportionately affect ethnic minorities in the U.S. For example, Black people are 40% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths.
In addition, Black people are also 41 to 60% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in premature death due to exposure to harmful particulate matter.
Aguilera explains that in the United States, some low-income communities live closer to freeways and roads, meaning that there are higher levels of air pollution coming from the traffic.
"Some homes don't have proper insulation, and because of impending climate change, people who live there may suffer from heat stress or heat stroke. Measures to protect themselves, such as better cooling devices or air purifiers, cost money and are not necessarily accessible to everybody," he adds.
Researcher says that the first step in achieving health equity is an awareness that our actions do affect not only ourselves but also people in other countries.
"In Africa, they deal with severe droughts and shortages of food because of how climate changes make soils less fertile in some areas," he says.