Climate Change Effects on Public Health

Our dependency on fossil fuels as a society is the number one contributor to the production of harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Naturally, the radiation from the sun reaches the Earth’s surface, is reradiated back into the Earth’s atmosphere and escapes into space. However, with the increasing presence of these greenhouse gases, more energy is absorbed while more heat is trapped into the lower atmosphere, disrupting our climate and increasing the threats to our health. Here are some of the ways that climate change poses a danger to our health:

Ground Level Pollution
Carbon dioxide is currently polluting the air we breathe at unprecedented rates from sources such as power plants and tailpipe emissions. Air pollution from carbon dioxide is continuing to increase temperatures, which worsens ozone smog. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and health professionals agree that ozone smog is a major health threat – exacerbating respiratory illnesses, increasing hospital visits and even causing premature death among children, seniors, and people who work outside. The two main sources of pollution which are contributing to our changing climate are coal-fired power plants and cars.
• Coal pollution causes over $100 billion in health costs and 12,000 emergency room visits every year.
• Car pollution adds another $40-$60 billion in health costs.

Health Risks
Increasing temperatures are contributing to more threats like ozone smog, and higher levels of air pollution. Even at very low levels, air pollution from sources like power plants and cars are harmful to human health. Since more than half of U.S. families live in areas where it is literally unsafe to breathe the air, this poses a serious threat to our health. Especially harmful to children and seniors, air pollution like smog can cause:
• Asthma attacks
• Reduced lung function
• Airway irritation and damage
• Increased risk of respiratory infections
• Permanent lung damage
• Shortness of breath and chest pain
• Wheezing and coughing
• Premature death

Linking Climate Change & Public Health
The American Medical Association declared that “rising air and water temperatures and rising ocean levels since the late 1960s have increased the severity of weather, including hurricanes and droughts, and the production of ground-level ozone. That means more asthma and respiratory illnesses, more heat stroke and exhaustion, and exacerbation of chronic conditions such as heart disease.”
• Not only are we seeing an increase in asthma cases caused by air pollution, but rising temperatures are also lengthening pollen seasons which could worsen allergy symptoms and have serious health consequences.
• More doctors are finding themselves on the frontlines of serious health problems with increasing cases of vector-borne diseases.
• Some states are facing higher threats from disease-carrying insects, like mosquitoes and ticks, which are living longer due to warmer temperatures.
• In 2010 and 2011, Richmond, Virginia ranked as the No. 1 Asthma Capitol due to factors such as a higher than average pollen score and poor air quality – consequences of high levels of pollution compounded by a warming environment.

The evidence is clear. Greenhouse gases are the leading cause of climate change which creates or increases a variety of threats to public health. The connections between carbon pollution, climate change, air quality, and health have never been more important, especially for our children.

Click here to learn more about how you can help to set carbon pollution standards now!

About the Author

Corrina Beall is the Legislative Coordinator for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.