Climate change is ‘first and foremost’ a health crisis, new report finds

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Working construction under the ruthless Arizona sun, Eleazar Castellanos knew the signs that heat exhaustion was settling in.

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On days when the temperature would be above 100 degrees, he and his co-workers used to sweat profusely. Then came cramps in his hands and feet, and a tremendous urge to stop: take a break, get some water, cool down.

But they couldn’t. Not when they wanted to get salary and return home to their families as earners.


“Many employers don’t understand, we need a break to drink water,” Castellanos said. “You don’t stop, because you know that if you stop, you stop getting money. Whatever the situation, we try to make it happen.”

Count Castellanos is in the millions. new Research released on Wednesday The number of Americans exposed to heatwaves continues to rise, with 2020 the second highest level of hazard risk since 1986, a consortium of medical and public health experts found.

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But the research, led by the International Association of Health Experts lancet countdown and co-published in the United States by the American Public Health Association, doesn’t stop there. Heatwaves and their potential to end and kill are just one of many public health threats, they found, as climate change warms the world and worsens weather patterns.

Drought leads to crop loss, job losses and access to health care. Wildfires send heaps of toxic air pollution into the air, which can travel thousands of miles across the country and catch people suffering from other respiratory illnesses. Worsening pollen seasons add to stress for people with asthma and other conditions, leading to emergency room visits.

Those most at risk are marginalized communities of Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian Americans who are disproportionately located near sources of pollution, or lack the means to protect themselves and access health care.

“Climate change is a health crisis first and foremost,” said Dr. Renee Salas, an attending physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, and lead author of the American report.

Experts say that climate change, heat waves affect heart health. That puts people of color at greater risk.

Salas and his colleagues, who presented the findings this week, say the US and other countries have the means to combat the growing crisis by cutting emissions to slow global warming and slashing resources to protect against its effects. .

Yet each of the 44 health indicators tracked in the new report reached “code red,” according to Jeremy Hayes, a medical doctor and professor of public health and emergency medicine at the University of Washington.

“Trends are increasingly worrying because they are persistent in the wrong direction.”

The report comes less than two weeks before the start of the 26th annual UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Climate experts say the hundreds of countries in attendance will have to find a way to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions if they want to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change.

Carlos Ramos delivers bottles of water and sacks lunches as he works at a hydration station in front of the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle.

But Hayes is already seeing the devastation. In early summer, he treated patients suffering from heat-related illnesses under a heat dome that hit the Pacific Northwest. Some didn’t make it, leading to rising US climate casualties.

“This was the first year I can say with confidence that my patients and I have clearly experienced the effects of climate change,” Hayes said. “I saw paramedics who were burned to their knees by kneeling to care for patients with heat stroke, and I saw many patients die from their heat exposure in the evening.”

measure heat exposure

Scientists calculate heat exposure by days. Every time a lonely American lives through a day of a heat wave, that’s a day. If a heat wave hits New York City, it adds up to 8.42 million days of heat exposure per day, one for every resident.

Nationally this number is increasing. In 2020, there were 300 million more heat wave exposures than the normal amount just two decades ago. And there have been more deaths.

According to the new report, nationwide, 92% of homes have air conditioning, which could prevent about 48,000 heat-related deaths annually. But in the Pacific Northwest, that number drops to about 70%. The study cited media reports that in Seattle, less than half of homes have access to air conditioning, leading to at least 600 deaths across the region.

“Furthermore, unequal access to weather-friendly, energy-efficient homes limits adaptability for low-income communities and people of color,” the US report said.

EPA says people of color face extreme damage from climate change

The knock-on effect of All That Heat adds to other public health threats. The number of wildfires nationwide reached nearly 80,000 in 2020, the researchers found, eight times higher than in 2001. Small harmful air pollutants caused by smoke, called particulate matter, enter the lungs and increase the risk of heart disease, premature death and premature birth. Along with deteriorating mental health.

In this long exposure photo, flames spread from the Dixie Fire in Genesee, Calif., on Saturday, August 21, 2021.

Rising temperatures are also making the drought worse.

In addition to direct effects such as heat stroke and disease complications on the human body, drought creates more favorable conditions for mosquitoes that carry diseases such as West Nile virus, damage water quality and increase food and economic insecurity. Huh. and dengue fever.

Drought also reduces water quality and increases the risk of exposure to harmful algae, damages the respiratory system and contributes to depression and anxiety, the study said.

20. Southwest: Four Corners Region According to the National Climate Assessment, human-induced climate change has contributed to increased heat, drought and pest outbreaks in the Southwest and Four Corners region, which includes Colorado, Utah. , Arizona and New Mexico.  and is the hottest and driest part of the United States.  The increase in extreme weather conditions has led to an increase in wildfires in cities, declining water supplies, reduced agricultural production and heat-related health issues.  They are likely to increase further in the future.  Also read: The Most Serious Public Health Issues America Is Facing Today

limit damage

The authors of the Lancet Countdown’s US report not only shed light on the public health threats brought on by climate change, but offer policy solutions they say can limit the damage.

The report urges a three-pronged approach: slowing the bleeding by sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions, treating symptoms by rethinking public health policies and resource allocation, and helping those who make such decisions. to help them understand the costs and benefits better. in respect of taking such action.

But recent events have shown how difficult a rapid transition can be. The report noted that although the burning of coal for energy in the US has halved since 2007, it still accounts for 19% of the country’s energy supply and is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Natural gas, another fossil fuel, makes up 40% of the supply. The use of renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydropower is increasing, but still accounts for only 20% of the energy mix.

The Biden administration hopes to put its thumb up by implementing a $150 billion clean energy payment program to reward energy suppliers for transitioning to renewable energy and punish those who stick to fossil fuels.

The report’s authors said hospitals and local government should be prepared for the unprecedented scenario. Already, some cities are taking action. Earlier this month, Phoenix became the first city in the United States to use public funds to appoint a director of heat response and mitigation, Arizona Republic reported, Following a similar effort With private money in Miami.

For Castellanos, a former construction worker in Arizona who now trains workers on federal workplace safety policies with the nonprofit Ariba Las Vegas in Nevada, the urgency of change is clear. Federal and state regulators under the banner of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration need to better enforce workplace safety, he said.

But better education is needed by all to bring heat illness and other health effects of climate change out of the shadows.

“Every year it’s the same history, every year it’s the same problem,” Castellanos said. “We pretend we’re used to it, but we can never do that.”

Contact Kyle Bagenstose at [email protected]

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