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The effects of climate change on health: Heat, illness, and air pollution
Science & Health

The effects of climate change on health: Heat, illness, and air pollution

There is increasing pressure for the international community to address the various impacts of global warming on human health, leading to the first-ever dedicated day for this topic at the upcoming UN climate conference.

Climate change has been labeled by the World Health Organization as the primary health concern for humanity due to factors such as intense heat, air pollution, and the rapid spread of life-threatening illnesses.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that in order to prevent catastrophic health consequences and avoid millions of deaths related to climate change, it is crucial to limit global warming to the target set by the Paris Agreement: 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to the United Nations, if countries stick to their current plans for reducing carbon emissions, the Earth is on course to experience a temperature increase of 2.9C by the end of the century.

Experts predict that children, women, the elderly, migrants, and individuals living in less developed countries that have emitted minimal greenhouse gases will be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Although no one will be entirely immune, these groups are expected to face the greatest risks.

On December 3rd, the COP28 talks in Dubai will feature the very first “health day” in the history of climate negotiations.

Extreme heat

This year is anticipated to be the warmest on record. As global temperatures rise, there will likely be an increase in the frequency and severity of heatwaves.

Researchers announced this week that heat was responsible for over 70,000 fatalities in Europe last summer, a higher estimate than the previous count of 62,000.

According to a recent report from the Lancet Countdown, individuals around the globe experienced an average of 86 days with dangerously high temperatures last year.

The number of deaths among individuals aged 65 and over due to heat increased by 85% between the years 1991-2000 and 2013-2022, according to the data.

According to the Lancet Countdown, if global temperatures rise by 2C, the number of deaths due to heat will increase by more than five times by the year 2050.

In addition, increased droughts will lead to an increase in hunger. In a situation where the Earth’s temperature rises by 2C by the year 2100, an estimated 520 million individuals will face moderate to severe food insecurity by 2050.

At the same time, individuals around the globe will still face potential harm to their well-being from severe weather occurrences like storms, floods, and fires.

Air pollution

Almost 99% of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds the WHO’s guidelines for air pollution.

According to the World Health Organization, over four million individuals die each year due to outdoor air pollution caused by fossil fuel emissions.

This behavior raises the likelihood of developing respiratory illnesses, strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and various other health issues. It presents a danger that has been likened to that of tobacco.

The harm is a result of PM2.5 microparticles, primarily emitted from fossil fuels. These minuscule particles are inhaled into the lungs and can subsequently enter the bloodstream.

Although short-term increases in air pollution, such as the recent extreme levels in New Delhi, India’s capital, can cause respiratory issues and allergies, it is believed that prolonged exposure has even more detrimental effects.

On the bright side, there is some good news.

The Lancet Countdown report revealed a decrease of 16% in fatalities caused by air pollution from the usage of fossil fuels since 2005. This decline can be attributed mainly to initiatives aimed at mitigating the effects of coal combustion.

Infectious diseases

The shifting weather patterns are causing mosquitoes, birds, and mammals to venture outside of their usual habitats, posing a greater risk of spreading infectious diseases.

The rise in global temperatures has increased the danger of mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue, chikungunya, Zika, West Nile virus, and malaria.

The Lancet Countdown report cautioned that the transmission potential for dengue will rise by 36 percent solely due to a 2C increase in temperatures.

Severe weather conditions and flooding result in standing water, which can serve as a breeding site for mosquitoes. This also heightens the likelihood of contracting water-related illnesses like cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea.

Researchers are concerned that mammals exploring unfamiliar territories may pass on illnesses to one another, potentially leading to the emergence of novel viruses that could then be transmitted to humans.

Mental health

Psychologists have cautioned that concerns about the current and future state of our increasingly warm planet have led to heightened anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress, especially for individuals who are already dealing with these conditions.

According to a recent report by the BBC, the term “climate anxiety” was searched for 27 times more frequently in the first 10 months of this year compared to the same period in 2017, based on data from Google Trends.