We get everything we need to sustain life, including our air, water, and food, from our environment. Even slight changes in the environment can cause noticeable changes in our air quality, water safety, food supply, and our ecosystem. Unfortunately, changes to our environment can implicate our health and well being.
Understanding, monitoring, and responding to climate change is becoming a significant global public health problem, especially as serious health impacts are predicted to manifest in various ways around the world. It’s important to remember that although not everyone is at equal risk, there are many strategies we can each take part in to support our global environment. Risk of negative health impacts depends on age, economic resources, and location.
Major effects of climate change:
According to the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), air pollution is currently the leading environmental cause of premature death . IASS also states, “The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that air pollution is responsible for seven million premature deaths worldwide each year – and this figure is growing. In addition, climate change and air pollution both have severe impacts on agricultural production and consequently on food security” .
With climate change, specifically increasing temperatures, comes a rise in disease risk, due to increased ground-level ozone and particulate matter in some locations. Ground-level ozone (a component of smog) has been linked to many health concerns including diminished lung function, worsening asthma, and has contributed to a rise in premature deaths . Other factors that contribute to ozone formation include concentrated chemicals and methane emissions .
According to the American Thoracic Society, a rise in temperatures and ozone is particularly concerning for those with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) as a 2014 study showed that higher outdoor temperatures contributed to worsening COPD symptoms and disease-related morbidity .
Food Security and Quality
With increasing concentrations of carbon monoxide (CO₂), the chemical composition of plants, including their leaves, stems, roots, and fruits, is slowly changing. This means that the nutrient density and makeup of various fruits and vegetables is impacted, ultimately influencing our nutrient intake . Many crop plants convert CO₂ from the air into sugars and other carbohydrates, increasing the overall carbohydrate content of the food, which, in turn, can further deplete minerals and other nutrients from the soil . In fact, a study that ranged from 1950 to 1999 that observed changes in 43 garden crops found there was a 38% decrease in riboflavin, with other compromised minerals including zinc, iron, potassium, and calcium . This phenomenon is now being referred to as the “junk-food effect.” Furthermore, studies have shown that plants grown in elevated CO₂ environments also have a lower protein content compared to plants grown in ambient CO₂ areas .
Another concern to the health and vitality of garden crops is declining bee populations. This decline is thought to be, in part, related to poorer nutrition in the pollen itself as a result of greenhouse gas . Pollinators, like bees, improve yields for crops necessary for human nutrition, and without them, there’s an increased risk for poor nutrition and a rise in food scarcity. Additionally, micronutrient deficiencies are estimated to negatively affect more than 1 in 4 people worldwide . This “hidden hunger” as a result of vitamin and mineral deficiencies affects everyone, and can cause increased risk of numerous chronic illness, infectious disease, decreased IQ, poorer work productivity, and nutrient-specific illnesses such as goiter, night-blindness, and iron-deficiency anemia . Other risk factors to nutrient status of produce include increased use of herbicides and pesticides, agricultural practices, food distribution systems, and consumer food choices .
Temperature Change, Wildfires, and Precipitation Extremes
Warmer temperatures increases the vulnerability of forests to wildfires, largely as a result of increased temperatures and dryer land . Record high temperatures are associated with droughts, creating the right conditions to fuel wildfires . Not only do wildfires cause devastation to surrounding areas, but the smoke poses additional toxicity risk. Wildfire smoke often contains particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other volatile organic compounds (ozone precursors) each of which contribute to poorer air quality .
Smoke exposure can be particularly concerning for those with greater susceptibility to poor air quality such as those with COPD, asthma, or other respiratory infections. It’s also been associated with more than 100,000 deaths annually based on the assessment of the global health risks .
Warmer temperatures means more frost-free days in certain regions, which can contribute to changes in flowering time and pollen count, which can exacerbate allergy symptoms . Additionally, the rise in CO₂ alone can increase the production of plant-based allergens . Paired with an overall rise in air pollution, higher pollen concentrations and longer pollen seasons can increase allergic sensitization and asthmotic episodes . Unfortunately, it’s not just the outdoor temperatures that pose an air quality risk, but indoors as well.
Extreme weather patterns and increased rainfall can potentiate the growth of fungi and molds, increasing respiratory and asthma related conditions, along with other mycotoxin-related symptoms . To put this into perspective, the percentage of people who have been diagnosed with asthma has increased from 7.3% in 2001 to 8.4% in 2010 in the U.S .
Vector Borne Illness
According to Princeton ecologist Andrew Dobson, PhD, “climate change is disrupting natural ecosystems in a way that is making life better for infectious diseases” . Fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes are sensitive to climate change, and unfortunately, rising temperatures and seasonal changes can be favorable to wider distribution of vector borne illness as they’re able to expand and reach higher altitudes or areas that were previously too cold . Warmer weather also means there’s a longer breeding season for these vectors. In North America, there has been a rise in vector-borne illnesses such as Lyme, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Rock Mountain spotted fever, plague, and tularemia .
Food Borne Illness
Changes in water and air temperature, precipitation patterns, and more extreme rainfall are known to affect disease transmission, specifically food and water related diarrheal diseases . Diarrheal diseases, such as salmeonellosis and campylobacteriosis, are generally more common with higher temperatures . Due to climate change, food production is taking place in altered climatic conditions and the surrounding ecosystems are being modified, meaning there’s greater risk for emergence or re-emergence of various types of bacteria, viruses, or parasites . For example, changes that livestock experience as it relates to temperature change can precipitate the spread of pathogens between species by altering the environment in which pathogens spread, making it more likely for pathogens to reach certain levels in our food supply .
Another risk of food borne illness is the increased incidence of flooding. It is now more likely that soil from contaminated lands (due to industrial sites, landfills, sewage treatment plants, etc.) will be washed into river bodies and flooding soils . As contaminated river sediments reach flooded areas, there may be a significant rise in contamination of agriculture and pastoral soil . This ultimately can result in greater food contamination .
What you can do to help the environment:
- Eat mostly plant-based foods and choose organic when possible. Also, eat local and consider ways you can grow your own food.
- Learn how you can reduce your waste and plastic use.
- Try walking or riding your bike whenever possible.
- Recycle and compost.
- Reuse your items and purchase previously owned items like household materials and clothing.
- Plants trees.
- Buy energy star products when possible.
What you can do to reduce your toxin exposure:
- Use an indoor air filter.
- Use safer personal care and cleaning products that are also environmentally friendly.
- Use glass or stainless steel instead of plastic (this will help reduce plastic waste, too!)
- Eat a variety of organic fruits and vegetables and organic, grass-fed animal protein whenever possible. To prevent food borne infection, wash your produce in a mixture of vinegar and water and rinse thoroughly, and eat meat that’s well-done.
- Drink and cook with filtered water, we recommend something like Berkey water filters.
- Look for ways to avoid off-gassing of household materials and products such as from new carpet, paint, vinyl flooring, etc. Also, consider not buying a brand new car as the interior materials will continue to off-gas for years after manufacturing.
- Air Pollution and Climate Change
- Higher Temperatures May Cause Greater Illness Among COPD Patients
- Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition
- Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999
- How Rising CO2 Levels May Contribute to Die-Off of Bees
- Reduction of transpiration and altered nutrient allocation contribute to nutrient decline of crops grown in elevated CO(2) concentrations.
- The Epidemiology of Global Micronutrient Deficiencies
- Climate and Health: Food Security
- Climate and Health: Wildfires
- Climate and Health: Allergens
- Natural Disasters and Nontuberculous Mycobacteria
- CDC: Diseases Carried by Vectors
- CDC: Food and Waterborne Diarrheal Disease
- Climate Change, Foodborne Pathogens and Illness in Higher-Income Countries
- Contamination of water resources by pathogenic bacteria