by Mona Sarfaty, MD, MPH
Director, Program for Climate and Health, Center for Climate Change Communication,
George Mason University. She is also the author of the forthcoming text Climate Change and Population Health.
As spring approaches, the familiar sights and sounds of the season start to appear. Beyond blooming plants and chirping birds, we see the familiar layer of yellow pollen covering cars and windows and hear the sounds of sniffles and sneezes from seasonal allergies.
Across the country, doctors are increasingly seeing patients who are reaching out for help with allergies earlier in the year and reporting more intense symptoms. For many, allergies are a seasonal annoyance that, depending on the plant, appear in spring, summer or fall. But for some patients, allergies are more than a nuisance. In fact, seasonal allergies can make asthma worse and lead to more emergency room visits, especially for children.
One fifth grade teacher who herself struggles with asthma describes her great surprise when she held up an inhaler and asked her students if they knew what it was. She never expected that most of the children in the class would raise their hands indicating that they did know. Asthma is the most common chronic condition of childhood and it is twice as prevalent as it used to be, now affecting one in ten children. In many urban areas, where air quality is generally worse, the rates are even larger with asthma affecting two in ten children.
Unfortunately, hospitalization is not necessarily the end of the problem. Asthma is a cause of death as well. Ten people a day die of asthma in the U.S., and a child dies from asthma on more than half of the days of the year. When hot weather arrives, the danger is greater. Heat causes ozone levels to rise, causing direct irritation of the lungs and presenting increased risk of life-threatening attacks.
These problems are getting worse due to global warming. Climate Change is already harming our health in countless ways throughout the year. Beyond worsening allergies, we see the spread of diseases like Lyme disease or West Nile virus to increasing extreme weather events like hurricanes to wildfires and heat illness.
Earlier, longer and more intense allergy seasons are a result of changing patterns in when and where plants bloom. Different plants are growing in new places and changing levels of carbon dioxide don’t just warm our climate—they cause many plants to produce more pollen. As the World Allergy Organization reported, climate change is affecting the start, length and intensity of allergy seasons.
As a physician, I can prescribe stronger allergy medicines, but there is a greater treatment that we’d all benefit from: combating climate change. Unless we act soon, climate change will continue to get worse as temperatures and carbon dioxide levels rise – and allergies will get worse and come with more and more serious health harms. The other impacts will also intensify. Heavier rains, stronger winds, more severe droughts, and more frequent infections are all part of the picture of worsening climate impacts.
We – elected officials, business leaders, health care professionals and patients – can alleviate our collective suffering and improve our health by supporting a fast transition to clean, renewable energy. And this won’t just help with allergies; it will improve the quality of our air and water, which helps alleviate a wide variety of health complaints. From asthma to heart disease to the spread of various diseases by water, we’ll breathe and drink easier.
Many cities and states are already embracing clean renewable energy. Iowa already gets 40% of its electricity from wind turbines; Kansas and South Dakota get 20% of their energy from wind also. Many states have pledged to achieve similar goals. Many businesses have as well.
Our health care sector is also doing this work already and showing that it works. Groups like Health Care Without Harm are helping health care systems and medical offices to reduce their carbon footprint. And doctors, nurses and other medical workers are banding together through medical societies to help educate patients and policymakers. Groups like the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health are sounding the alarm so we all understand that the health of our climate is directly connected to the health of our people.
Climate change isn’t something that is only a concern for the future or for a stranger living in some other part of the world; it’s happening now and it’s happening here all over the country. Whether we realize it or not, it’s already harming our health. Let’s act before it makes us sicker.
About the Author
Mona Sarfaty, MD, MPH, is the Director the Program for Climate and Health at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.