When a 2003 heat wave swept Europe, killing more than 70,000 and triggering a state of emergency, the continent was most experiencing its hottest summer on record since around the year 1500. George Luber, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can point to this extreme weather event as an example of the powerful dangers of climate change to human health. But he can also point to the growing number of stuffy noses from allergies and blame climate change there, too.
Climate change has catastrophic and more mundane health consequences, Luber said, and he argued that discussions of its dangers should be reframed in terms of human health, making people more likely to care about environmental issues.
“We really need to reframe dialogue away from the polar bears and penguins and plants to really those most vulnerable” he said. “It’s not an issue that’s distant in space or distant in time, but here in our community.”
Luber’s presentation, “Under the Weather? The health consequences of a changing climate,” was part of MU Life Sciences & Society Program’s 12th annual symposium, “Confronting Climate Change,” held on March 12 and from March 17 to 19 in the Bond Life Sciences Center.
Luber, the chief of the Climate and Health program at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, mentioned three types of health threats from climate change.
The first threat, which he called “disasters within a disaster,” involve extreme weather events that trigger other, smaller crises. He cited the loss of electricity during Hurricane Sandy, which – think of hospitals that rely on constant power, for example – can cause countless other issues.
The second threat, the worsening of already existent health issues by environmental factors, he said, posed the greatest risk to vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. But he cited risks that can impact everyone. More waterborne disease outbreaks as heavier downpours increase with higher temperatures, for example. And regarding those stuffy noses, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can send plants like ragweed, a pollen producer, into overdrive. Airborne allergens are nothing to scoff at, he said — they can cause $11.2 billion a year to treat.
The third threat, he said, encompasses all new dangers that are difficult to predict. Algal blooms known as red tides in the oceans, made worse by rising temperatures, let off a toxin into the air that can cause breathing problems for some, he said. Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks, is spreading faster as the ticks can more easily survive milder winters to reproduce.
As for solutions, Luber believes the path forward is to emphasize climate change as a social and health issue relevant to all of us and to work with communities and all levels of government to prepare for the health risks that await us.
“We are already seeing these impacts of climate change in our own communities,” he said. “But hopefully early action and evidence-based approaches can help to protect the public’s health from this threat.”