For the media

How does climate change affect our health?

By The Health News Team | April 22, 2022
Planet earth in human hands

Climate change isn’t just bad for the planet — it’s bad for our health too. From the air we breathe to the water we drink, the changing environment impacts human health in far-reaching ways.

According to a recent United Nations report, climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world. Droughts, floods and heat waves are accelerating more rapidly than scientists predicted, causing severe health consequences. These extreme weather events have been linked to heat-related illnesses, the spread of infectious diseases, health complications related to poor air quality, and more.

A growing number of medical professionals are stepping up to meet the health challenges posed by environmental changes. Last year, two doctors with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group formed the Sharp Rees-Stealy Climate and Planetary Health Committee. Dr. Angie Neison and Dr. Kristin Hampshire, co-chairs of the committee, are spearheading efforts to link climate impacts with the practice of medicine.

“We are connecting the dots between what we see in our offices and what is happening outside our offices,” says Dr. Neison, a family medicine and culinary medicine doctor.

The committee, which currently has 20 members, shares information and strategies for integrating climate concerns into the care of their patients and communities. “We are developing more patient resources to offer tips on ways to simultaneously protect both the health of humans and the health of the planet,” says Dr. Hampshire, a family medicine doctor.

Who is at greatest risk?
While we are all vulnerable to the harmful health effects of climate change, some groups are more at risk than others. The many ways climate change can affect our health are not yet fully understood, but its influence is becoming more evident.

  • Heat-aggravated illnesses
    As temperatures climb around the globe, heatwaves are expected to become more intense and frequent. Young children, older adults, and people who are pregnant or have heart or lung conditions are all more vulnerable.
    “For pregnant women, extreme heat can increase the risk of preterm labor and premature birth, which complicates the health of both mother and baby,” says Dr. Hampshire.

  • Vector- and waterborne diseases
    Climate change is redistributing and increasing the optimal habitats for insects and other pathogens that carry disease. As a result, insects such as mosquitoes and ticks are spreading farther and increasing the risks of exposure to diseases in some areas.
    In addition, flooding from heavy rainfall can overwhelm water systems. This can lead to contaminated drinking water and illness from water-borne diseases.

  • Air quality
    An increase in allergens, smoke from wildfires and ground-level ozone (smog) are detrimental to health. “Ten years ago, my patients only experienced seasonal allergies; now it’s more than a season,” says Dr. Neison.
    As our planet gets warmer, wildfires also continue to grow more extreme. Wildfire smoke carries fine particles that can go deep into the lungs.
    Poor air quality is linked to worsening asthma and lung disease,” says Dr. Hampshire. “Because children have lungs that are still developing, they are particularly vulnerable to air pollution.”

Many still see climate change as a faraway threat. The reality, however, is starkly different: climate change is happening now, and it is harming our health.

“It’s in our backyards,” Dr. Neison says. “We just need to pay attention.”

You might also like:

Get the best of Sharp Health News in your inbox

Our weekly email brings you the latest health tips, recipes and stories.