Devastating wildfires, unprecedented floods, prolonged drought, unrelenting heat waves with record high temperatures: pick a locale or a time, there are plenty to choose from across the United States in each of those categories this year alone. Even when experienced as a single event, each of these has significant detrimental impacts on peoples’ health; when more than one occurs at once, as is often the case, those impacts worsen.
Air pollution, especially in the form of particulate matter (PM), comes from burning fossil fuels, industrial and agricultural processes, and more intense wildfires. This leads to more emergency room visits and hospitalizations from asthma exacerbations, premature births, and heart conditions. There is also mounting evidence that PM can harm fetuses.
Many people associate the health impacts of extreme heat with dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, all of which are true. Few realize that heat, even with modestly increased temperatures, has been associated with increases in heart attacks and strokes, flares of lung conditions, and complications in pregnancy and worse birth outcomes for mothers and their babies.
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Extreme precipitation events can lead to flooding, often with loss of life and property. Loss of ground cover and debris flows can lead to worse flooding in areas damaged by wildfires. Water-borne illnesses from contaminated water supplies and respiratory conditions from people living in mold-infested homes can follow flooding.
Often overlooked are the detrimental effects on pregnant women. Pregnant women and their fetuses are particularly sensitive to air pollution and climate change. Heat has been associated with more pre-term births. PM can increase the risk of pre-term birth and certain conditions in the fetus that will affect the child throughout their life.
Climate change is also having a major impact on mental health. Climate anxiety affects many people. Farmers, ranchers, foresters, and indigenous populations often experience solastalgia, the distress people feel due to changes in their environment. Any climate event — flood, drought, wildfire, extreme rain or snow — can lead to worsening mental health, especially when more than one event occurs at the same time, such as droughts and heat waves.
There are things we can do as individuals or local communities to prepare. Doing an assessment of our home or surroundings can help determine the risk of things such as floods or wildfires. If there is risk, developing a plan for what to do and take should such an event occur could save lives.
Wildfire smoke is increasingly common. Becoming familiar with air quality indicators, such as the EPA flag program, can guide responses. Limiting exposure by avoiding strenuous activity when air quality is poor helps. Portable or wholehouse air purifiers can improve indoor air quality. You can make an air purifier from an inexpensive box fan and filter. Many local organizations will provide these for people who cannot afford them.
Addressing climate change and its causes will take the combined effort of all of us. Start by talking to our families and neighbors about what is happening. Let your elected officials know that you think these are important issues. Talk with your school board about switching to electric school buses.
Here’s my prescription: demand that candidates who ask for your vote have developed plans to address the air pollution and climate change that is affecting everyone’s health.
Robert Byron is a Montana physician and one of the lead authors of the “Climate Change and Human Health in Montana Report” released in 2021.
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