Eleven leading medical societies representing more than half of the nation’s doctors announced on Wednesday that they were joining forces to educate the public and policymakers about the harm that climate change is doing to people’s health.
The new group, called the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, hopes its efforts will enable individuals and governments to better protect themselves against that harm.
“Doctors in every part of our country see that climate change is making Americans sicker,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, director of the consortium and of the Program for Climate and Health at George Mason University, in a released statement. “Physicians are on the frontlines and see the impacts in exam rooms. What’s worse is that the harms are felt most by children, the elderly, Americans with low-income or chronic illnesses, and people in communities of color.”
Most Americans are unaware that climate change — such as rising temperatures, increasing air pollution and extreme weather events — may be damaging their and their families’ health. A survey taken in 2014, found that only 27 percent of Americans could name even a single type of health harm caused by climate change.
What the evidence says
The consortium hopes to fill in that knowledge gap. In a report issued Wednesday, the group describes what is already known — through evidence-based research — about the health harms inflicted by climate change.
“These harms include heat-related illness, worsening chronic illnesses, injuries and deaths from dangerous weather events, infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks, illnesses from contaminated food and water, and mental health problems,” the report says.
At a Washington, D.C., press conference Wednesday, Safarty said the consortium had begun to reach out to certain “priority states where we felt policy makers really needed to get the message out, where the legislators may be less attuned to health consequences.”
Those states include Minnesota, as well as Montana, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona and Virginia.
Risks in the Midwest
In Minnesota and other Midwestern states, five climate-change-related factors are particularly putting people’s health at risk, according to the consortium’s report:
- Extreme temperatures (caused by more hot days, greater humidity and longer, hotter and more frequent heat waves). Extreme heat can make chronic diseases, such as heart disease and asthma, worse, the report says. It can also lead to heat-related illness and death from heat stroke and dehydration, as well as to premature birth.
- Mosquito- and tick-borne infections (caused by increasing temperatures, severe weather events and either too much or too little rain). As a result of climate change, the conditions under which mosquitoes and ticks that carry diseases (like West Nile virus, dengue fever and Lyme disease) thrive are becoming much more common, according to the report. There is even concern, it says, that malaria may return to the United States.
- Contaminated water (caused by higher water temperatures, heavier downpours, rising sea levels and more flooding due to rising sea levels and heavy rain). The contamination results from heavy rains washing fertilizers and animal waste from farms into rivers, lakes and oceans, where the excess nutrients and warm waters create ideal conditions for the growth of algae, viruses, parasites and bacteria (such as salmonella, E. coli and vibrio). “People get exposed to these pathogens by drinking or swimming in contaminated water, or by eating contaminated fish and shellfish,” the report points out. “This can cause diarrhea and vomiting and, in severe cases, paralysis, organ failure, and death.”
- Contaminated food (caused by increases in temperature, humidity and extreme weather events such as heavy downpours and flooding). “Heavy downpours and flooding can spread fecal bacteria and viruses into fields where food is growing,” the report explains. “Higher sea surface temperatures can lead to more pathogens and greater accumulation of mercury and other heavy metals in seafood. Foodborne illness has long been known to peak in summer due to the heat. Because pests, parasites, and bacteria thrive in warmer temperatures, farmers are using more pesticides on crops and drugs in livestock, which can cause health problems. The geographic range of mold and associated toxins is also expanding, affecting corn, peanuts, cereal grains, and fruit.”
- Threats to mental health. “Many people exposed to the worst extreme weather events experience stress and serious mental health consequences including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and increases in suicidal thoughts and behavior,” the report points out. “Such disasters are also associated with increases in alcohol or drug abuse. Children may also experience prolonged separation from their parents. Beyond the well-known risks specific disasters pose to our mental health, the physical, social, and economic stresses created by climate change all increase our risk of mental health problems.”
An uphill road
The consortium — which includes the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, Immunology, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, among others — strongly supports the efforts of climate scientists to encourage energy efficiency and to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, like solar and wind.
The group is also urging individuals to do what they can by driving less, walking and biking more, reducing energy consumption and adopting a more plant-based healthy diet.
“Doctors agree with climate scientists: The sooner we take action, the more harm we can prevent, and the more we can protect the health of all Americans,” the consortium proclaims in its report.
Of course, taking action is going to be an increasingly difficult task, given the Trump administration’s doubt about — and even hostility toward — the scientific consensus regarding the threats of climate change.
Indeed, just last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention canceled a conference on climate change and health, reportedly because they were worried about how the conference would be viewed by President Trump and his officials.
FMI: You can read the consortium’s report on the group’s website.