You can only be as healthy as the ecosystem you live in.
It’s common to talk about the climate crisis as an exclusively environmental issue. You often hear about “protecting Mother Earth” and “loving the planet,” but you and the planet you live on have an important, reciprocal relationship.
The planet provides you with fresh air, clean water, and healthy soil to grow your food, but none of those things are guaranteed. When you protect the planet, the planet protects you. When you threaten the health of the planet, the planet threatens the health of you—and everyone who lives on it.
Here are some ways American health may suffer if the climate crisis continues without interventions:
1. An uptick in allergens.
The typical pollen schedule can vary depending on the weather, and warmer temps may worsen and prolong that season. As a result, seasonal allergies may become more of a problem for the millions of Americans who experience them.
That’s not all: Increased rainfall, warmer temperatures, and floods can also increase the growth of fungi and mold. These are common allergens and asthma triggers, but they can also be harmful to Americans without any allergies.
2. More vector-borne diseases.
Vectors are insects like mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks. These little guys are infamous for carrying diseases like Lyme disease (from ticks) or malaria and West Nile virus (from mosquitoes).
Vectors tend to stick to specific regions due to the climate and land—which means the diseases they carry also tend to cluster in certain parts of the country. For example, almost all of the reported cases of Lyme disease in 2017 occurred in the northeastern United States, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This could change, however; climate changes can cause vectors to adapt and shift to different regions, which could result in more vector-borne illnesses, especially in regions that aren’t used to dealing with them.
3. Worse air pollution.
The United States already has a great deal of air pollution, but extreme temperatures can make it worse. When pollutants interact with heat, it creates smog—that grayish yellow haze that looms around cities. The climate crisis might increase both pollution and global temperatures, which is a dangerous recipe for smog.
Smog can be devastating to human health. It poses a risk to heart health, lung health, and even cognitive and mental health, according to the American Psychological Association.
4. Less food security.
Food security refers to consistent and affordable access to healthy foods. Extreme weather, air quality, soil quality, and water quality can all threaten the food security all over the world, including the United States. This may cause reduced supply of certain crops, livestock, and seafood, as well as higher food prices.
Reduced food supply does more than affect your wallet. Often, when food prices soar, many families adapt by buying more affordable options, which tend to be low in nutrients but high in calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. This trend can be devastating to a family’s health, increase rates of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and put a strain on the country’s healthcare resources.
5. Reduced water quality.
Safe and clean water is essential for human health—so much so that the United Nations recognizes it as one of the fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, increased pollution and changes in rainfall could contaminate water supply with pathogens like viruses, parasites, and bacteria, resulting in foodborne illnesses.
Americans often associate unsafe drinking water with other countries, but the truth is, the climate crisis could bring contaminated water to your own kitchen sink. Traveler’s diarrhea might not just be for travelers anymore.
6. More extreme temperatures.
Heat waves aren’t just uncomfortable: They can turn deadly. Anyone can get a heat-related illness, but some people are especially vulnerable to heat stroke. This includes infants, older adults, and people with heart or lung conditions.
U.S. cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have already witnessed an uptick in deaths caused by heat waves, according to the CDC. Climate predictions suggest this will only worsen.
7. More severe weather.
Shifts in temperature can lead to numerous horrific natural disasters, such as:
These severe weather events can result in injuries, deaths, and major expenses to families and cities. Plus, they can worsen air and water quality, further endangering human health. For example, wildfires release carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants that worsen air quality, and floods increase mold growth (see #1).
8. A risk to mental health.
Surprisingly, the climate crisis may also pose a threat to mental health. First of all, extreme weather events can result in trauma, despair, stress, anxiety, or depression. For example, victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than the average American, according to the CDC.
Second of all, climate change can cause forced migration. If a certain region becomes devastated by extreme weather events, families may be pushed to relocate. For low-income families, moving to another part of a country (or another country entirely) can be a stressful event that hurts mental health and sense of stability.
And finally, research shows some types of mental illness are vulnerable to rising temperatures. Suicide rates have been shown to increase during periods of high temperatures, according to the CDC.
Allergy facts. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://acaai.org/news/facts-statistics/allergies.)
Climate and health: air pollution. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/air_pollution.htm.)
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Climate and health: diseases carried by vectors. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/vectors.htm.)
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Climate and health: wildfires. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/wildfires.htm.)
Lyme disease: data and surveillance. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/datasurveillance/index.html.)
Smog in our brains. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2012. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/smog.)
Symptoms & causes of diarrhea. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diarrhea/symptoms-causes.)The human right to water and sanitation. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (Accessed on January 28, 2022 at https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/human_right_to_water.shtml.)