More than half of the US physicians — including family doctors, pediatricians, obstetricians, allergists, geriatricians and internists — are launching a campaign to help patients, the public and policy makers understand the damage climate change is doing to people’s health and what needs to be done to prepare and protect ourselves.
Eleven of the nation’s leading medical societies are forming the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health and releasing a new report that highlights crucial health harms from climate change. Among them: cardio-respiratory illness associated with wildfires and air pollution; heat injury from extreme heat events; spread of infectious disease, including dangerous conditions such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease; and health and mental health problems caused by floods and extreme weather.
The new report, Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming Our Health, combines research on the health impacts of climate change, physician stories, and research-based evidence showing that reducing greenhouse gases improves heath and saves lives. The report will be delivered to members of Congress before being distributed more broadly to state leaders, businesses and medical groups.
“Doctors in every part of our country see that climate change is making Americans sicker,” said Mona Sarfaty, MD, director of the new consortium and a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “Physicians are on the frontlines and see the impacts in exam rooms. What’s worse is that the harms are felt most by children, the elderly, Americans with low-income or chronic illnesses, and people in communities of color.”
The report documents that most Americans don’t realize that worsening health, such as increases in asthma attacks and allergies, is linked to climate change. A 2014 poll showed that only 1 in 4 Americans can name even one way in which climate change is harming our health.
The Medical Alert! report outlines three types of harms from climate change:
- Direct harms, such as injuries and deaths due to increasingly violent weather, asthma and other lung diseases that are exacerbated by extremely hot weather, wildfires and longer allergy seasons;
- Spread of disease through insects that carry infections like Lyme disease or Zika virus, and through contaminated food and water; and
- The effects on mental health resulting from the damage climate change can do to society, such as increasing depression and anxiety.
The report draws on a number of peer-reviewed reports, including The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program in 2016.
Doctors are joining climate scientists to encourage energy efficiency and accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, like solar and wind, citing both the long-term health benefits and immediate health effects of cleaner air and water. Americans also can help, for example, by driving less, and walking and biking more, according to the Consortium report.
“Doctors work to prevent smoking and help patients quit, because smoking harms health and increases the risk of cancer or lung disease. We see efforts to combat climate change in the same way: they will improve health today and reduce health risks down the road,” said Nitin Damle, MD, MS, MACP, president of the American College of Physicians (ACP) and founder of South County Internal Medicine Inc. in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
A January 2017 Abt Associates study found that, in the Northeastern states that are taking actions to reduce heat-trapping pollution through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), there were immediate public health benefits. Researchers found this initiative has prevented 300-830 early deaths among adults, 39,000-47,000 lost work days, 35-390 non-fatal heart attacks, 8,200-9,900 asthma flare-ups and 180-220 hospital admissions. It has also saved money.
“Here’s the message from America’s doctors on climate change: it’s not only happening in the Arctic Circle, it’s happening here. It’s not only a problem for us in 2100, it’s a problem now. And it’s not only hurting polar bears, it’s hurting us,” said Sarfaty.