As temperatures rise, climate change is jeopardizing our health
Climate change. Those words might conjure up visions of sea levels rising, Arctic glaciers melting and polar bears heading toward extinction.
But global warming is not an abstract thing happening far away. (And it’s certainly not a hoax!)
Climate change is happening here and now, and it’s affecting our health in Chicago in very tangible ways. Rising temperatures can lead to dangerous heat waves, flooding, a longer pollen season, more ozone smog and insect-borne diseases. Climate change is affecting you and your neighbors. And it’s especially affecting our community’s most vulnerable: the very young, the very old, those with respiratory conditions, those with low incomes or few resources, and communities of color.
“Obviously in the Midwest we don’t have any polar bears. We don’t have any glaciers. We’re kind of far removed from sea level rise. So people [wonder], ‘Well what’s it going to do here?’” says Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association, a Chicago nonprofit concerned about the effect of climate change on lung health.
“The number one thing that is going to happen is that you’re going to see more heat waves and hotter heat waves,” Urbaszewski says.
If we dare to admit it, some of us are thrilled when the weather is warmer in Chicago. We relish the unexpectedly warm winter or fall days. Last fall, the high was 72 degrees on November 17. Short sleeves and no jacket in mid-November? We’ll take it.
However, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Global warming is taking the chill out of Chicago.
More heat waves
When talking about heat waves, almost every expert mentions the Chicago heat wave of 1995, which was a literal killer. Temperatures reached 106 degrees, and more than 700 people died in a five-day period.
There will undoubtedly be more heat emergencies in the future. By mid-century, the Chicago area will experience 10 to 15 more extreme heat days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees, according to the National Climate Assessment.
Heat stress affects the elderly, people who work outside, those in low-income communities and those with mental health problems—people who may not have air conditioning (or can’t afford to turn it on) or who can’t get to a cooling center.
Also at risk are people living with chronic diseases, heart disease, asthma, lung disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “Those are the people who are going to die first in major heat waves,” Urbaszewski warns.
Heat waves will increase in frequency and magnitude globally, says George Luber, PhD, chief of the Climate and Health Program, Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Chicago 1995 was the tip of the iceberg,” Luber says. “An estimated 700 people died in Chicago in 1995. An estimated 70,000 excess deaths were attributed to the European heat wave of 2003, showing that in areas that are not prepared for these threats and not aware of these threats the number of deaths can be quite substantial. We saw it again in Russia in 2010, and the projections are that [heat waves] will increase dramatically.”
Flooding after heavy rains
Warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air, leading to heavier downpours and flooding. In the Midwest, the amount of precipitation falling in heavy storms increased 37 percent from 1958 to 2012.
Heavy rain “leads to flooded streets; it leads to flooded basements; it leads to lots of sewage going into waterways,” Urbaszewski says. “That kind of event is going to become more frequent in the future as we get more intense rainstorms that carry a larger proportion of our overall rainfall—less gentle, long, drizzly rains and more giant storms that dump tons of water all at once.”
Flooding causes mold, which creates health problems when people with allergies and asthma breathe in mold spores. Flooding also can imperil the drinking waters and recreation waters of the Great Lakes, says Sarah Lovinger, MD, executive director of the Chicago chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and an internal medicine physician at the Lake County Health Department.
When there’s heavy rain, our combined sewage overflow system can get overloaded. The city opens the locks to the Chicago River and lets the river flow into Lake Michigan so it won’t flood the city. Contamination can result. “E. coli is the main pathogen,” Lovinger says. “It hasn’t really gotten into our drinking water supply, but it does affect the beaches and recreation. If you go to the beach when the E. coli count is high you can get a nasty skin infection; you can get conjunctivitis; and, if you end up swallowing too much contaminated water, you can get a bad E. coli infection.”
Perhaps you’ve been plagued by hay fever in the past—the endless sneezing; itchy, red eyes; runny nose and nasal congestion that makes going outside miserable for 25.2 million Americans. Well, that’s going to get worse.
Warmer weather means a longer pollen season. In fact, the ragweed season in the region is now 15 days longer than it was 20 years ago.
“If spring comes earlier, you’re going to have a higher pollen count earlier,” Lovinger says. “Plant-based allergens are going to thrive more. Poison ivy is worse.”
“Ragweed is one of these things that loves carbon dioxide,” Urbaszewski explains. “The more carbon dioxide you give it, the more pollen it makes, which is bad because the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is continuing to go up and up.”
NASA has documented a “relentless rise” in carbon dioxide levels from the burning of fossil fuels. “Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years,” NASA states. Before 1950, carbon dioxide levels never rose above 300 parts per million (ppm). In 2013, carbon dioxide levels broke the 400 ppm mark—and they’re still climbing.
Threats to respiratory health
The combination of heat, sunlight and the burning of fossil fuels creates ozone smog pollution. As the temperature increases, ozone pollution will worsen, says Elena Grossman, MPH, project manager for BRACE-Illinois, a project funded by the CDC that is building the capacity of Illinois’ public health system to respond to the impact of climate change.
“Ozone pollution is created by the burning of fossil fuels—that can be exhaust from cars, trucks, coal-fired power plants—combined with sun and heat,” Grossman says. “Ozone pollution is particularly harmful to those with respiratory conditions.”
Ozone can cause your airways to swell up, making it more difficult to breathe. Air pollution can cause more asthma attacks, emergency room visits and hospitalizations—all the way up to heart attacks and premature deaths, Urbaszewski says.
“For people with chronic conditions like asthma or COPD, the last thing you need is swollen airways. For someone who already has trouble breathing, this is something that can send them into an asthma attack,” he says.
Diseases from ticks
Vector-borne diseases are infections transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. And guess what? Those are increasing under climate change, too.
Years ago, the ticks that carried Lyme disease couldn’t survive in the Chicago climate. Now, the warmer climate is allowing deer ticks to move northward, likely leading to the spread of the disease, Lovinger says.
“That tick is thriving more because winters don’t have such a hard freeze and the tick population is growing,” Lovinger says.
Stress and mental health
The mental health effects of climate change are often overlooked. But the stress of coping with a heat wave, facing a drought or losing personal items in a flood can be traumatic. Plus, there’s the financial strain these events place on individuals, families and business owners.
“There’s a concern of mental health if you’re exposed to a traumatic event—the trauma of having to leave your home and not knowing what’s going to happen and maybe being relocated for an extended period,” Grossman says.
“Mental health is something that needs to be focused on. It’s often in the shadow when we talk about the health effects of climate change,” she adds.
Global warming is already happening. Mitigation efforts are aimed at cleaning up emissions from cars, trucks and power plants that pump greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the air. Mitigation also includes embracing cleaner sources of energy like electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels.
“It took years to build up all the power plants. It’s going to take years to replace them with zero-emission sources. It’s something we really need government to lead in setting the ground rules and goals for,” Urbaszewski says.
The Future Energy Jobs law passed by the Illinois legislature in December is a bright light in climate legislation. It vastly increases the use of energy-efficiency programs in Illinois, so less power will be used. The law also requires new solar and wind facilities to be built in the state, creating jobs and clean power, although it also subsidized two nuclear power plants. “It’s going to create investment across the state and lead to many more clean energy jobs in some of the most economically hard hit communities,” Urbaszewski says.
“The scientific evidence for the link between climate change and health has been growing tremendously,” the CDC’s Luber says. “It is unequivocal that these impacts are taking place.” Public health agencies can educate about the health effects of climate change and “empower communities to protect those most vulnerable,” he says.
BRACE-Illinois is developing adaptation strategies on a statewide level. “[We’re] helping to prepare communities to plan for the changes that are already happening, think about the unthinkable and how to plan for that,” Grossman says.
“Adaptation can be many things. It can be improving the storm water management system so that it can handle larger amounts of precipitation. But it can also mean improving the outreach system to vulnerable populations during a heat wave to make sure that they have adequate supplies or they’re able to get to air conditioning,” she adds.
Facing the future
“Individuals should be prepared for the health impacts of climate change. They should understand that air quality, heat and other environmental conditions are increasingly threatening for larger groups of the population,” says Warren Lavey, JD, MS, who teaches environmental policy and law at the University of Illinois.
However, the Trump administration has said it is skeptical of the existence of climate change. President Trump has called climate change a hoax and said he is considering withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has said the debate over global warming “is far from settled.”
Those working in the public health field strongly disagree.
“The science is indisputable,” Urbaszewski says. “Global warming is happening. It’s going to happen for a long time in the future because there are a lot of greenhouse gases that we put up in the air over the last 150 years. Massive amounts of coal, oil and gas have been burned not only today but in the past. And that is going to catch up with us. The full effect of what we did in the past may not be felt for 100 years. By cutting emissions now, we will be helping to keep global warming from getting even worse.”
Those involved agree that we need to advocate for better climate change policy to reduce emissions and protect our health—here in Chicago, not just for the polar bears in the Arctic.
“You can’t deny the science. You can’t refuse to connect the dots. If you do, then you’re putting your own health and the health of your family at risk,” Lavey says. “It’s not some abstract area of atmospheric science or some distant biological concern. This is about the health of families in Chicago now.”
Originally published in the Spring 2017 print edition
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.