By: Michelle Kaminski
Climate change is a major public health issue that has been overlooked the past four years by our previous administration. When the general public thinks of the word “climate change,” many people associate it with the increasing threat of global warming. The aforementioned environmental consequence of climate change is categorized by extreme heat and an overall increase in the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. Unless more attention is brought to climate change and its impacts on our health, the Earth’s temperature will continue to increase in its frequency and magnitude and impact a greater number of people each year.
Extremely hot temperatures have the potential to cause numerous adverse health outcomes, most notably heat stress conditions. Examples of these conditions are heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps; these conditions can exacerbate pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, diabetes mellitus, and renal disease (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2017). In the worst-case scenario, extreme heat events can lead to premature death and disability, as is already being seen in large cities in the United States such as St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia. Extreme heat from climate change puts everyone in the U.S. at risk for these adverse health outcomes; however, vulnerable populations are impacted the most by heat-induced stress conditions. The elderly (including adults 65+), children, low-income populations living in urban areas, socially isolated individuals, and outdoor workers are all at a higher risk for contracting illnesses due to higher temperatures (American Public Health Association et al., n.d.).
Urban areas tend to have densely populated buildings, which generate and absorb heat more easily than areas that are less populated, causing a heat island effect (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2017). Vulnerable populations affected by extreme heat often move to other parts of the country to escape these conditions. Heatwave episodes instigate public health emergencies which may contribute to lasting socioeconomic impacts for some of the vulnerable populations, like diminished labor productivity. Additionally, power-loss during heat waves has the potential to disrupt the delivery and transportation of health services and the function of health facilities (World Health Organization, 2018).
So what can we do? Recommendations by the Environmental Protection Agency (2020)
- City and county councils in low-income communities – particularly in urban areas with risks of heat islands – can help raise awareness of heatwaves in at-risk communities.
- City panels can be established in large cities to distribute educational materials in the form of handouts and brochures to citizens highlighting the dangers of extreme heat.
- City and county councils can work together to create a smartphone application that sends updates about upcoming extreme heat events.
- A portion of the education materials can include information about the importance of increased indoor air conditioner usage, increased usage of sun-shielding clothing, and less time spent outdoors during heat waves (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2017).
- Strengthen Emergency Responses
- Expansion of emergency response notification systems via a phone call and/or text message to people of low-income populations that may not have smartphones.
- Establish cooling centers during times of extreme heat that would be accessible to vulnerable populations.
With the year 2020 now behind us, a new administration focused on environmentally sustainable efforts brings hope to an increase in climate change awareness. Earth’s changing atmosphere affects more people each year across the U.S and can cause heat stress conditions and negative health outcomes. Luckily, these outcomes are preventable and can be mitigated with the help of public health systems working towards a solution. While increased emergency responsiveness and preparedness will not stop global warming, it will certainly slow it down – but we must work together to see this through.
American Public Health Association, U.S Department of Health and Human Services, & Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Extreme Heat Can Impact Our Health In Many Ways. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/pubs/extreme-heat-final_508.pdf.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2017, July 20). Effects of Heat. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/programs/geh/climatechange/health_impacts/heat/index.cfm
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, October 2). Climate Change Adaptation Resource Center (ARC-X). United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/arc-x/public-health-adaptation-strategies-climate-change#extreme
World Health Organization. (2018, June 1). Heat and Health. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-heat-and-health