7 Ways Climate Change Is Sneakily Messing With Your Health
Climate change is bad. This we know. It’s bad in the grand scheme of things (e.g., it’s destroying our planet, and it’s all our fault) — and it’s also bad in the day-to-day sense: Climate change messes with your health, and eventually, we’re going to get to a point where we can’t ignore it anymore. I can only hope that we reach that point before it’s too late, although honestly, I’m not optimistic right now; the current administration’s stance on climate change has grown more and more alarming with each passing day, and we’re all going to suffer as a result.
I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom, but the issue is literally life or death. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 2030 and 2050, malnutrition, malaria, heat stress, and other illnesses resulting from climate change will cause roughly 250,000 additional deaths per year. Developing countries will suffer the most due to weak health infrastructure; what’s more, indigenous people, women, and girls will likely bear the brunt of it. And it’s expensive — even for wealthy countries. A paper published in 2015 in the journal Nature found that temperature and gross domestic product (GDP) have been closely related over the past 50 years, with the former playing “an important role in shaping” the latter, according to study co-author Marshall Burke. When temperatures are too hot or too cold, GDP suffers — and if we take into account the current trends, the forecast looking ahead isn’t so great.
Of course, the forecast isn’t great in the short term, either. Here are just a few ways that climate change is messing with your health right now.
1. Climate Change Is Destroying Your Sleep
A new study published in the journal Science Advances used data from 765,000 survey respondents in the United States between 2002 and 2011 to examine the relationship between sleep and ambient temperature — and the results yielded the first evidence that climate change is seriously messing with our sleep. Reports of restless nights increased as nighttime temperatures did, with a one degree Celsius increase resulting in three nights of not-so-great sleep per 100 people on a monthly basis. If climate change continues its current rate, by 2099, the number of restless nights could get as high as 14 per month. That’s literally half the month, people. A lack of sufficient sleep affects your health in a lot of serious ways; the danger is real.
2. It Makes Mosquitoes And Ticks More Than Just An Annoyance
As someone who grew up in a humid area, getting my head checked for ticks and dousing myself in bug spray were both just standard parts of summertime. If I were growing up in the same area now, though, I’d likely be sporting long sleeves for most of the season: Tick and mosquito populations are booming, and climate change is part of the reason why. With spring coming earlier and summer lasting longer, areas that once didn’t have enough warm weather to support robust tick or mosquito populations are now awash with the little buggers — and mosquito bites are the least of our worries.
Although ticks (which, by the way, are arachnids, just like spiders) are pretty much synonymous with Lyme disease, they’re capable of transmitting many other diseases as well; according to NPR, spotted fevers, Heartland, Powassan can also all be passed along by ticks. Mosquitoes, meanwhile, are responsible for spreading things like dengue fever, Zika, and West Nile virus — and yes, the recent Zika epidemic was partly a result of climate change-prompted mosquito population increases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
All of which is to say, I am now considering never venturing outside ever again.
3. It Makes Your Allergies Worse
Similar to how longer periods of warm weather make it easier for ticks and mosquitoes to survive, lengthening springs and summers mean more pollen, too. Writing in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2016, science writer Charles W. Schmidt noted, “When exposed to warmer temperatures and higher levels of CO2, plants grow more vigorously and produce more pollen than they otherwise would.” And, indeed, Schmidt observed that there’s evidence to suggest hay fever has been on the rise in recent decades. An unconnected study also posits that the amount of pollen produced could double by the year 2040 — so, in short, your allergies are probably going to get worse and last longer because of climate change as time goes on.
4. It Makes It Harder To Breathe
While those living in dryer areas don’t have to worry about issues related to humidity, they do have to contend with other problems — like, for example, wildfires, and all of the health issues that go with them. Global warming has resulted in longer, dryer wildfire seasons, according to numbers crunched by the Union of Concerned Scientists; what’s more, there are many more and bigger fires each season now than there were several decades ago. (Between 1980 and 1989, the number of wildfires that were bigger than 1,000 acres was about 140; between 2000 and 2012, the number was around 250.) Among the many health issues associated with wildfires is the concern about what constant bad air quality does to your lungs. Particle pollution from wildfires can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes, according to the American Lung Association, and the effects can be wide-reaching — air pollution from wildfires can spread thousands of miles away from the site of the fire itself.
5. It Can Make It Harder To Access Clean Water
According to the CDC, heavy downpours — which, like many things, are on the rise because of global warming (wrote The Guardian in 2011, “The total volume of precipitation is likely to increase by one to two percent per degree of warming”) — can result in contaminated drinking and recreational water. Floodwaters containing disease-causing bacteria, parasites, viruses, agricultural waste, chemicals, and/or raw sewage can affect your water supply, and, well… let’s just say you don’t want to be drinking or swimming in stuff like that.
6. It Might Be Making Your Food Less Nutritious
Here’s one possible effect of climate change you may not have heard before: A report released earlier in 2017 by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health found evidence that climate change might be making our food less nutritious.
Said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, director of the program on climate and health at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, told CNN, “One of the more recent findings that has been surprising to me is the increasing evidence that a carbon dioxide-enriched atmosphere is actually leading to crops that have lower nutritional value.” Continued Dr. Sarfaty, “So it’s impacting the nutritional value of grains. That’s something which has been increasingly documented, and of course it’s very worrisome because the population depends on the growth of grains as a staple in our diet.”
7. It Can Have A Lasting Effect On Mental Health
It’s no secret that global warming and climate change have increased instances of severe weather: Hurricanes are more powerful; wildfires are even more out of control; earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are more easily triggered; and on and on and on. But the aftermath of these kinds of weather events isn’t just dealing with physical damage; there’s also a heavy mental toll. Wrote Bustle’s JR Thorpe about a comprehensive 2015 study of the effects of climate change on mental health:
Disasters create highly traumatic human responses, but beyond the immediate trauma of a flood or drought, the impacts can also be more subtle: economic shifts, for instance, can leave people suddenly poor, making them vulnerable to mental health issues, while forced migration in response to environmental difficulties like rising water levels takes severe psychological tolls.
But although the outlook is dire, there are still things we can do to fight climate change in our everyday lives. Little changes can make a big difference, of course — but don’t stop there. Get going on some big ways to protect the environment, too. And get your friends and loved ones on board, and their friends and family, and keep the chain going.
In this case, the clichés are true: It takes a village, and every little bit helps.