The Health Impacts of Climate Change

This week, more than 300,000 people marched in New York City for a call to action on climate change. The event coincides with a United Nations summit today where world leaders will discuss global action on climate change.

Kenneth Spaeth, MD, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the North Shore-LIJ Health System based in Great Neck, NY, points out that the effects of climate change are wide-ranging.  “Climate change is not only attributable to severe weather patterns, like droughts or excessive flooding, but the subsequent effect is health outcomes,” says Dr. Spaeth.  “As temperatures rise we see an increase in some infectious diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile Virus because the warm weather extends the life of insects and reproductive periods.  In addition, greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels increase air pollution affecting those living with respiratory illnesses.”

Dr. Spaeth explains that common greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and ozone affect human health. “Fossil fuel serves as ingredients for ozone which is a known trigger for asthma,” he says.  “As temperatures climb so do ozone levels and we see the impact on Long Island and New York City.  As the region warms up the allergen level also rises so you will see more mold and ragweed.”

“Drought can be felt at the local level affecting the number of crops in the US but also in developing countries which are disproportionately affected by climate change,” says Dr. Spaeth.  He also points out that flooding not only disrupts communities as the New York metro areas saw with Hurricane Sandy, but globally as “floods create refugees and a breeding ground for cholera outbreaks and other infectious diseases.

“There must be a cultural change to move forward in the world in the future to address climate change.  In our own lives we can turn off our computers, use mass transit and conserve energy.  The other piece is a political issue, nationally and globally, to limit carbon pollutants and other greenhouse gases for the planet and the sake of our health,” says Dr. Spaeth.

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