The year 2017 was a year of intense and impactful weather occurrences: hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, flooding, mudslides, avalanches. Every year seems to bring us more hurricanes, more devastating forest fires, more infectious disease outbreaks like Zika, more bomb cyclones and other severe weather events. And we must be aware of the deleterious effects that this changing climate is having on our health.
As Earth warms and we see higher temperatures, we find higher levels of ground-level ozone. We usually think of ozone as a good thing. Ozone in our stratosphere absorbs much of the sun’s harmful UV rays. But when ozone is found at ground level, it is an irritant to lungs suffering with chronic diseases. This is why higher levels of ground-level ozone are associated with worsening asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease symptoms. When ozone levels are high, there are spikes in ER admissions and hospitalizations for those suffering with chronic lung disease.
Rising temperatures also increase the occurrence of droughts and wildfires, which causes massive amounts of particulate matter in the air. Wildfires, like the devastating Thomas Fire in California and even the smaller brush fires we experienced in the summer of 2017, fill the air with dangerous particles called PM 2.5, which are known to enter our lungs and bloodstream. The effects of these tiny particles in the air range from coughing and asthma flareups to heart attacks and premature death, especially for people with heart and lung diseases, and they can be felt for hundreds of miles.
With our changing climate we are seeing more extreme weather occurrences like flash floods and hurricanes, too. More frequent flooding means more mold. Mold can cause disease through toxins that are released and then inhaled. People who are allergic to mold are likely to experience increased nasal and chest symptoms. Those who are immunocompromised, either due to cancer treatments or underlying immunity problems, may be more susceptible to systemic and life-threatening diseases caused by mold.
Rising temperatures and increases in rainfall and flooding also are creating more hospitable breeding areas for insects know to carry diseases like malaria, Lyme disease and Zika. Mosquitoes, ticks and flies that carry the majority of these diseases breed in warmer temperatures, and eggs hatch more quickly. The introduction of chikungunya virus and perhaps even Zika to Florida is thought to be related, on some level, to rising temperatures.
Another by-product of our warming climate is pollen seasons that start earlier and last longer. Over the past decade, I have noted tree pollen season beginning earlier and earlier in the year, with high levels being present by early January and extending into late April. Another change seen in pollen and believed to be related to our changing environment is the emergence of super pollen. Super pollen refers to larger and more allergenic pollen particles that seem to "stick" to our tissues better. Some studies have pointed to photochemical smog blocking pollen particles from naturally escaping our atmosphere. Others suggest that the pollen particles themselves are becoming stickier and, as a result, are remaining present in our respiratory tracts longer and becoming harder to naturally remove from our bodies. Either way, this is bad news for allergy sufferers who are facing more severe and longer-lasting symptoms.
While policymakers and elected officials decide what the underlying cause of climate change is, it is clear that the environment is changing and that this is having a negative impact on our health.