Climate Change and our health

“As President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”-(Barack Obama, June 2, 2014)

Global climate change is affecting our planet, including us. When I report disease cases to health departments, public health nurses now refer to climate change as an issue regarding infections. (website links are at the bottom of this page.)

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) website discusses several climate change issues: temperature, air quality, extreme weather, insect borne diseases, water related illnesses, food safety, mental health, and populations of concern. “Climate change poses significant threats to health even in wealthy nations such as the United States.” Children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with low incomes, face increased risks.

  • Temperatures: Warmer average temperatures will lead to hotter days and more frequent and longer heat waves. These changes will lead to an increase in heat-related deaths in the United States—reaching as much as thousands to tens of thousands of additional deaths each year by the end of the century during summer months. Exposure to heat can lead to heat stroke and dehydration, as well as cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular disease.  Those who work outdoors, student athletes, and homeless people are more exposed to extreme heat. Low-income households and older adults may lack air conditioning increasing exposure to heat. Additionally, young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with certain medical conditions are less able to regulate body temperature and are more vulnerable. Large urban areas in the northern US are already reporting increased numbers of heat related deaths.
  • Changes in air quality affect indoor and outdoor air. Warmer temperatures and shifting weather worsen air quality, increasing asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular illness. Increasing wildfires create smoke and other air pollutants. Rising carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures also affect airborne allergens, such as ragweed pollen. U.S. air quality has improved since the 1970s, but as of 2014 about 57 million Americans lived in counties that did not meet national air quality standards.  Climate change makes it harder for states to meet these standards, exposing more people to unhealthy air. Warmer temperatures increase unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant. People exposed to higher levels of ozone are at greater risk of dying prematurely or hospital admission for respiratory problems. Ozone damages lung tissue, reduces lung function, and inflames airways. This aggravates asthma or other lung diseases. Children, older adults, outdoor workers, and those with asthma and other chronic lung diseases are particularly at risk. Warm, stagnant air increases formation of ozone, climate change is likely to increase levels of ground-level ozone in already-polluted areas of the US and increase the number of poor air quality days.  Higher concentrations of ozone due to climate change may result in tens to thousands of additional ozone-related illnesses and premature deaths per year by 2030 in the  US, assuming no change in air quality policies. Particulate matter in the air leads to a variety of health problems: lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cardiovascular disease. Fine particles in the air come from fires, burning fossil fuels, dust, and gaseous reactions in the air. Climate change is increasing the number of wildfires in Oregon, smoke particles travel very long distances on the wind. Older adults are more sensitive to airborne particles with higher risk of hospitalization and death. Allergens and Asthma triggers: Changes in seasons due to global warming are increasing pollen levels and lengthening seasons of allergenic pollens.
  • Extreme weather events are increasing: flooding, droughts, severe storms. These events reduce availability of safe drinking water and food. By damaging roads and bridges they restrict access to pharmacies and hospitals. Communication and utilities are interrupted. Stomach and intestinal illnesses increase following power outages. Emergency evacuations are difficult and risky for elderly and disabled folks. Mental health impacts include new onset or exacerbation of depression and/or PTSD.
  • Vector Borne Diseases are infections carried and transmitted by ticks, fleas, mosquitoes and other insects. As climate changes, the range of ticks is increasing. With warmer winters, more fleas survive to the next year. There are many vector borne organisms, Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus are two that are most often in the news.
  • Water Related Illnesses



Here is information for Oregon from the US Centers for Disease Control:   Over the past century, Oregon has warmed about 2°F. This and other climate impacts, like more frequent wildfires and warming oceans, mean increasing risks to health. Examples of risks and actions for Oregon residents include:

Large wildfires are occurring more often and wildfire seasons are lasting longer. This increases health risks, such as those related to smoke inhalation and evacuations.

  • Prepare: Keep your air-conditioning filter clean, and close the unit’s fresh air intake.
  • Respond: Check local news and reports for information on air quality, visibility, and evacuation orders.

Sea level rise and coastal droughts can cause saltwater to move into fresh groundwater, threatening drinking water supplies.

  • Prepare: Have an emergency water supply ready for your family (1 gallon per person/pet per day).
  • Respond: Check the news for tap water safety notices, such as boiling water before use.

Harmful algal blooms that contaminate shellfish have become more frequent along the Pacific Northwest coast and estuaries. Rising temperatures will lengthen the season for harmful blooms in the Puget Sound. This especially affects tribes that traditionally depend on shellfish harvests.

  • Prepare: Check for beach closures or health department notices before swimming, fishing, or harvesting shellfish.
  • Respond: Keep seafood chilled to less than 38°F. Discard any perishable food if your refrigerator has lost power for longer than four hours.