The Health Toll of Climate Change in 2005 and 2011
As a health professional, I knew that disasters could have devastating impacts on the physical health and psychological well-being of the people who lived through them. But it was only when I went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that I experienced the health toll of a disaster first-hand. People suffered terribly from medical conditions caused or exacerbated by their experiences in the hurricane. Some symptoms were physical – cough, wheezing, and sinus symptoms from the rampant airborne mold. Other symptoms were physical and psychological – anxiety and depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the months and years after Katrina, serious mental illness among New Orleans residents spiked. Mortality levels climbed from many causes, murder and suicide included.
In 2011 there was no Katrina, but this past year was a blockbuster for extreme weather. There were at least 2,941 weather records broken across the country, including extreme heat, heavy precipitation, and wildfire. Today, NRDC released a new, online extreme weather mapping tool. It lets users track the impacts of extreme weather in 2011, explore how climate change increases risks, and learn how best to protect themselves and their communities from extreme weather events. The bottom line: climate change is affecting our lives and our health right now.
I can’t help but think of how these extreme-weather events take a toll on our health. The most serious impacts, of course, are deaths, which are spotlighted in the media. Unfortunately, the health toll doesn’t stop there. My colleagues and I recently published a study showing that six climate related events in the U.S. within the last decade carried a health toll of over $14 billion dollars, including deaths, hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and outpatient visits. Although anyone can suffer from these health threats, some are especially vulnerable.
Consider the 370,000 Americans with kidney failure who undergo dialysis on a thrice-weekly basis. Without treatment, without the electricity and water and access to a dialysis center they need, they can die within a few days. The emergency instructions currently provided for them don’t inspire much confidence:
Stay at home unless you are hurt.
Begin a survival diet - 2 cups fluid per 24 hours, no fresh fruit or vegetables.
Wait at home for instructions and details about your dialysis clinic on television, radio, messenger or phone.
If you must go to a shelter, tell the person in charge about your special needs.
We need to start preparing now to help people with kidney failure so that they don’t die or become gravely ill during hurricanes, blizzards and wildfires, especially as climate change makes these disasters more frequent and severe.
Likewise, those 1 million Americans with respiratory problems who depend on oxygen therapy to survive, almost all rely on electric-powered oxygen concentrators that extract oxygen from the air and supply it through a tube at high concentrations. This August, during Hurricane Irene, a friend spent the storm with her oxygen-dependent aunt near the shores of Coney Island, on New York City’s waterfront. Had the power gone out in my friend’s apartment, it would have been an inconvenience. But for her aunt, it might have meant life or death. Luckily, the electricity stayed on. And her aunt had several tanks of oxygen for back-up. But in other places far more devastated by the storm, the power was out for as long as a week. And roads were impassable. In situations such as these, how will we take care of our most vulnerable?
I have a three-part prescription. First, on an individual level, people with life-threatening illnesses and their caregivers must prepare for extreme weather events. Information for people on dialysis is available from the National Kidney Foundation. Those who are oxygen-dependent should check out this site. All others with serious medical conditions should discuss emergency plans with their healthcare providers.
Second, on the local, state, regional, and federal level, we need emergency-preparedness programs that anticipate climate change. Right now, only 13 out of 50 states have them. Each dollar invested in this type of planning saves about five dollars down the road. And the savings in heartbreak is immeasurably high. Either way, this kind of preparation is taxpayer money well-spent.
Finally, the time to prepare and act to prevent climate change’s worst impacts is now. That’s not just my position. It’s one that’s shared by the American Medical Association, the country’s largest organization of doctors and medical students; by the American Public Health Association, the world’s oldest and most diverse public health group; and, by a myriad of other medical and public health associations. We need to heed the signals from our environment. People across the country are still suffering from this year’s weather disasters as 2011 draws to a close, just as people in New Orleans are still suffering six years later. We cannot afford many more years like this.
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