How Will the Climate Change Storm Affect Our Health?

What actions should Newton take to help us “weather” climate disruption? In a program titled “Climate and Health” at the Newton Free Library, Dr. Regina LaRocque (Harvard Medical School), Dr. Brita Lundberg (Boston Health Advocates) and Professor Jonathan Levy (Boston University, School of Public Health) offered an objective view of the problem, actions we can take and the health benefits they would provide.

Dr. LaRocque reviewed success stories from public health endeavors to address health risks of burning fossil fuels. She presented data that showed that the removal of lead from gasoline has had a positive impact on intelligence in the general population, as measured by IQ. Other data showed that when pollution from fossil fuels is decreased, human health (as measured by premature births and asthma attacks) is immediately improved.

Dr. LaRocque stressed that we need to increase awareness of the health/fossil fuel/pollution connection. She noted that although the change to clean energy sources is often portrayed as expensive, the fact is that changes made to decrease fossil fuel emissions have been shown to be accompanied by a substantial economic benefit. For example, concentrations of six common air pollutants have been reduced by about 70% since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and, in the same period, GDP has increased by nearly 250%.

Dr. Lundberg showed what is happening now and what the future will be serving up if we do nothing about climate change: hotter cities, more extreme weather events and more health problems. She presented data showing that fossil fuel emissions are acidifying the oceans and the land mass, including increased tree death. That effect leads to further extremes of warming and cooling and magnifies the problems of increasing CO2 and decreasing oxygen in the atmosphere. That’s because trees are a carbon sink and the primary source of oxygen on the planet.

Other factors driving the extremes of temperature are the documented slowing of the Gulf Stream and changes in the Jet Stream. The consequences for the earth: more extreme weather, including a colder New England and Europe. Effects will include drought in some areas and increased precipitation and flooding in others.

These events have important health implications: increased risk of heat stress, especially in cities; and changes in vector borne diseases with expanded territories for Lyme, malaria, dengue and many other infectious diseases. Other concerns include more cancers and diarrheal diseases following catastrophic events such as hurricanes, due to increased release of pollutants, carcinogens and bacteria. Mental health impacts are also associated with increasing temperatures: PTSD, anxiety and depression have all been seen to increase following extreme weather events.

Dr. Levy noted that Newton can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to do so, it is necessary to change our built environment, specifically to change our transportation network and our sources of energy. If well designed, he said, these actions could improve local health and quality of life now, here in Newton.

by Brita E. Lundberg, M.D.