Climate Change: The Slow Moving Threat

Erin Potter, Columnist

Climate change brings concern for our health. With the recent warming trend, there are several temperature related illnesses that we will have a higher probability of contracting. Higher temperatures and more heavy rain events will have an effect on air and water pollution as well as the abundance of parasites that cause disease. This concern for our health and future generations’ health.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) states, “human beings are exposed to climate change through changing weather patterns (for example, more intense or frequent extreme events) and indirectly through changes in water, air, food quality and quantity, ecosystems, agriculture and economy. At this early stage the effects are small but are projected to progressively increase in all countries and regions.”
The rising temperatures will make us more prone to heat stroke, heat exhaustion and heat rash. It will also cause issues for people with asthma or heart problems, as well as health risks for the young and elderly. More flooding is projected to occur, which can lead to the spreading of infectious diseases. Flooding carries contaminated water into the drinking system and contaminated water that is consumed can lead to illnesses such as diarrhea, cholera and typhoid fever. A warm and humid environment will provide optimal conditions for mosquitoes, which could contribute to an increase in malaria and related diseases.
An intriguing example of parasitic disease that is spreading due to global warming is called schistosomiasis, or snail fever. Though this tropical disease has a low mortality rate, it is a chronic illness that can result in damage to internal organs. It is ranked as the second most socioeconomically devastating parasitic disease (malaria being the first). The parasite is a worm carried by freshwater snails; when humans are exposed to contaminated water, they have the potential of being infected. The symptoms may range from itching and a rash to bloody diarrhea and painful urination. Increasing global temperatures could very well lead to an increase in both the parasitic worm and the host snail numbers.
Many studies have been done to determine the impact of climate change on human health; in these matters Dr. Laurence S. Kalkstein, Research Professor at the University of Miami’s Department of Geography and Regional Studies, is an expert. One study performed by Kalkstein and his colleagues correlates extreme heat waves to death by heat-related illnesses. Two heat waves in Shanghai, China were compared—one in 1998 and one in 2003. The meteorological factors and the air pollution levels were relatively the same, yet the 1998 event resulted in more fatalities. The study concluded, “…improvements in living conditions in Shanghai, such as increased use of air conditioning, larger living areas and increased urban green space, along with higher levels of heat awareness and the implementation of a heat warning system were responsible for the lower levels of human mortality in 2003 compared to 1998.” This sends us the message that with improvement of conditions and awareness, we have the ability to lessen the effects of climate change-induced illnesses.

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