Last week, Executive Dow Constantine released King County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan. This document details the state of the county in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the impacts climate change has already had in our region, and efforts to both reduce greenhouse gases and prepare for the expected impacts of climate change.
Though a large body of work will be dedicated to managing the factors that contribute to climate change, many climate pattern shifts are already set in motion. Public Health’s primary role is to anticipate these changes, monitor impacts on human health, and put systems in place that mitigate their effects.
But it’s not just about figuring out how to deal with more hot days (though that’s serious too). We also have to think about how people are affected by more frequent and more severe storms, longer periods of heat and dryness, shifts in ecological systems, and the ways humans interact with all of these changes. In fact, some of the ways climate change could affect our health may be surprising.
Our own Public Health Veterinarian, Beth Lipton, the Environmental Health representative for the emergency response team, explained some of the ways climate change might affect our health:
- Greater risk of respiratory illness
The ways climate change can affect your lungs are many. As growing seasons lengthen, so do the allergens that accompany them. Hotter days mixed with air pollution can exacerbate chronic conditions like asthma. Wildfires, which may become more common during hotter, drier summers, can also irritate the respiratory system.
- Greater risk of insect-borne diseases
Climate affects insects too – and sometimes these insects carry diseases, such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Longer warm seasons mean a longer breeding period for insects like mosquitos, flea, and ticks. Vegetation changes may create environments that increase interaction between insects and other animals or people and thus, promote disease. More warm weather may make transmission of diseases more successful as a result of adaptive changes of the insect and the disease-causing agents they carry.
- Greater risk of waterborne disease
We have lots of fresh and saltwater, in our region. Warmer and drier weather often promotes growth of disease-causing agents in water including harmful bacteria, viruses, or natural toxins. Vibrio, a marine bacterium found in Puget Sound causes most shellfish-related illness and thrives in warm temperatures. Cooking shellfish can destroy bacteria and viruses, but some natural marine toxins that accumulate in shellfish during warm weather cannot be destroyed by heat. Harmful algal blooms in our fresh water lakes are caused by cyanobacteria growing in sunny weather if the right nutrients are present. If more sunny days occur as our climate changes, more Toxic Algae Health Advisories will occur, making people think twice about swimming in some local lakes.
- Greater risk of mental illness
Extreme weather events, like storms, flooding, landslides, and wildfires, may cause displacement or prolonged stress resulting in mental health problems. These events can also push people out of their homes and wreak havoc on their lives. This is particularly true for vulnerable populations who have low incomes, rely on public transportation, or are isolated.
- Greater risk of injury
Extreme weather events often lead to traffic crashes and other injuries from debris and flooding. Power outages during winter storms have been associated with cold-related health problems and with carbon monoxide poisoning. Heat events in our area have been shown to increase people seeking emergency medical care. Additionally, longer periods of warm weather may also lead to an increase in drowning as people seek water sources to cool down.
- Greater risks for vulnerable populations
Climate change will, absent other changes, amplify some of the existing health threats the nation now faces. Children, elderly, and sick people are likely to be affected faster and harder by changes in our climate. In addition poor areas and communities of color may lack infrastructures and health care needed to combat health effects from extreme weather events.
Want to know more about climate change and public health? Beth has compiled a list of resources you may want to check out: