The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment

Original paper published by Globalchange.Gov

1. Climate Change and Human Health


Climate Change and Human Health

The influences of weather and climate on human health are significant and varied. Exposure to health hazards related to climate change affects different people and different communities to different degrees. While often assessed individually, exposure to multiple climate change threats can occur simultaneously, resulting in compounding or cascading health impacts (see Figure ES2).

With climate change, the frequency, severity, duration, and location of weather and climate phenomena—like rising temperatures, heavy rains and droughts, and some other kinds of severe weather—are changing. This means that areas already experiencing health-threatening weather and climate phenomena, such as severe heat or hurricanes, are likely to experience worsening impacts, such as higher temperatures and increased storm intensity, rainfall rates, and storm surge. It also means that some locations will experience new climate-related health threats. For example, areas previously unaffected by toxic algal blooms or waterborne diseases because of cooler water temperatures may face these hazards in the future as increasing water temperatures allow the organisms that cause these health risks to thrive. Even areas that currently experience these health threats may see a shift in the timing of the seasons that pose the greatest risk to human health.

Climate change can therefore affect human health in two main ways: first, by changing the severity or frequency of health problems that are already affected by climate or weather factors; and second, by creating unprecedented or unanticipated health problems or health threats in places where they have not previously occurred.


2 Temperature-Related Death and Illness


Temperature-Related Death and Illness

Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases lead to an increase of both average and extreme temperatures. This is expected to lead to an increase in deaths and illness from heat and a potential decrease in deaths from cold (see Figure ES3), particularly for a number of communities especially vulnerable to these changes, such as children, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged groups. Days that are hotter than the average seasonal temperature in the summer or colder than the average seasonal temperature in the winter cause increased levels of illness and death by compromising the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or by inducing direct or indirect health complications. Loss of internal temperature control can result in a cascade of illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia in the presence of extreme heat, and hypothermia and frostbite in the presence of extreme cold. Temperature extremes can also worsen chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes-related conditions. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures is associated with increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular, kidney, and respiratory disorders.


3 Air Quality Impacts


Air Quality Impacts

Changes in the climate affect the air we breathe, both indoors and outdoors. The changing climate has modified weather patterns, which in turn have influenced the levels and location of outdoor air pollutants such as ground-level ozone (O3) (see Figure ES4) and fine particulate matter. Increasing carbon dioxide(CO2) levels also promote the growth of plants that release airborne allergens (aeroallergens). Finally, these changes to outdoor air quality and aeroallergens also affect indoor air quality as both pollutants and aeroallergens infiltrate homes, schools, and other buildings. Poor air quality, whether outdoors or indoors, can negatively affect the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Higher pollen concentrations and longer pollen seasons can increase allergic sensitization and asthma episodes and thereby limit productivity at work and school.


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