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Greenville Business Magazine

Climate Change: A Warming Planet Poses Health Risks

Oct 13, 2021 12:55PM ● By Liv Osby

Extreme droughts, catastrophic wildfires and raging floods are among the many documented environmental consequences of climate change. 

But experts say that a warming planet also means more asthma, cardiovascular disease and even mental illness resulting in thousands of premature deaths each year.

Climate change is a grave threat not only to worldwide stability, but to human health, says Dr. Jane Kelly, assistant state epidemiologist at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

And it impacts everyone, she told Integrated Media, publisher of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine. 

“If you think you haven’t been feeling it yet,” she added, “you just haven’t recognized it.”

For instance, she said, smoke from wildfires on the West Coast wafted across the country over the summer affecting human health even here in South Carolina, leading DHEC to caution residents to stay indoors over several days.

According to the World Health Organization, each of the last three decades has been warmer than any before it.

In fact, 2020 tied for the hottest year on record, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, while July 2021 was the hottest month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.  

The average temperature in South Carolina increased 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, Kelly said. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, she said it is because that averages out the highs and lows while not accounting for the impacts of extreme heat waves. 

“I used to live in Charleston in the 1980s, and I left and now I’m back,” Kelly said, “and I keep saying it was not like this then. Not this hot and humid.”

The Palmetto State also is seeing king tides along the coast resulting from rising sea levels that have led to flooding which spreads hazardous pollution as water invades neighborhoods, she said. In fact, sea level in Charleston has increased 1.3 inches per decade since 1921, according to NOAA.

Climate change is related to activities like fossil fuel burning, which results in increased greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap heat in the atmosphere, the WHO reports. 

And a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that it’s indisputable “that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” resulting in widespread and rapid changes, and that warming will continue for decades even with

immediate action.

As a result, worldwide weather-related natural disasters like floods have more than tripled since the 1960s, the WHO says.

Some 250,000 additional people are expected to die every year between 2030 and 2050 from climate change, resulting in direct health costs of $2 billion to $4 billion annually by 2030, according to the WHO. 

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “extreme summer heat is increasing in the United States,” and that extreme heat events will be “more frequent and intense in coming decades.”

And according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, as the climate continues to change, “the risks to human health will grow, exacerbating existing health threats and creating new public health challenges.” 

Though everyone is at risk, some groups are more vulnerable, including the poor, children, pregnant women, older adults, people with disabilities and those with preexisting medical conditions, according to the institute.

In addition, people who live in homes without air conditioning are more likely to suffer from extreme heat, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. 

“Heat-related deaths are definitely higher among those at greatest risk,” said Kelly. “And that’s a population that suffers from other health disparities and other medical problems, like diabetes and heart disease.”

Meanwhile, agricultural workers and others who labor outdoors are most vulnerable to heat stroke and other heat-related deaths, according to the CDC. 

Some 702 people on average die each year nationwide and 9,235 are hospitalized from heat stroke and other heat-related causes, the CDC reports.

South Carolina ranked fifth among the 10 states with highest heat-related work deaths between 2000 and 2010, Kelly said, and second in a study of nonfatal work-related heat injuries per 10,000 people in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Southeast is recording longer heat waves and more of them, with 61 percent of major cities enduring some aspects of worsening heat waves – such as stagnant air masses - more than any other part of the country, according to CDC.

State climatologist Hope Mizzell said the number of days with a low temperature above 75 in South Carolina has been increasing over time, with the highest number recorded between 2010 and 2014, the most recent five-year period for which data is available.  

The state is also seeing an increase in extreme precipitation events, she said.  

Along with the health effects associated with wildfires and floods, hotter temperatures lead to higher levels of harmful ozone and particulate matter, which affect lung and heart health, CDC says. 

Climate change also brings a larger range and longer seasons for mosquitoes, ticks and other insects that cause illnesses like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease, the agency reports. 

“Warmer conditions facilitate the expansion of the geographic range of mosquitoes, so we could have diseases rarely seen here starting to crop up, like dengue,” Kelly said. 

“It’s something we normally associate with tropical climes,” she added. “But they have seen dengue outbreaks in Puerto Rico and they’re starting to see it in the lower 48, like Florida and Texas. We saw this with Zika.”

Climate change can also mean more pollen and longer pollen seasons, affecting allergies and asthma, CDC says, noting that each year, the nation spends more than $3 billion on medical costs associated with pollen.  

Extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires can also affect mental health, resulting in anxiety, depression, PTSD and even suicides, which rise with higher temperatures, the CDC reports.

Pre-term birth, low birth weight and maternal complications are also associated with higher temperatures, according to the agency.

Climate change is also likely to mean food shortages that lead to higher prices and food insecurity, Kelly said. 

For example, California and other western states that produce much of the nation’s food are suffering extreme drought and are having to change the way they farm, she said. 

“Certain areas that traditionally have water shortages now have desperate water shortages, or people don’t have water to drink or to provide for crops and livestock,” she said. “That threatens food security. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that it’s not.” 

Heat also affects oxygen levels in water, Kelly said, stressing fish and other animals living in lakes and ponds.

“It’s impacting the entire ecosystem,” she said.

So is it too late to do anything about climate change? 

Kelly said it’s never too late to make a difference, but society needs to recognize that climate change exists. 

“The difference may not be as great as we would hope for,” she said. “But there are certainly things we can do to minimize the impact of climate change.”

Government, for instance, could provide subsidies to make electric vehicles more affordable, she said. It also could pass laws to limit the release of industrial pollutants and other manufacturing processes that contribute to climate change, she said. 

“There are some states that provide additional support for solar power,” she said. “We need more projects like that … (to help) the individual consumer who wants to do the right thing and can’t afford to come up with money in the short term.

“But the big industry players is where it will have the biggest impact. And the sooner the better.”

The WHO says that cleaner energy, more public transportation and better food choices are among the actions that the public can take to reduce greenhouse gases.

The question is whether there is a collective will to make the changes necessary.

“I am deeply concerned that we do not have the political will to do it in all circumstances … (and) we have a long history of favoring industry in making decisions about reducing pollution and things that contribute to climate change,” Kelly said. “But I would not say there’s nothing we can do.” 

People often fail to take action until they are personally affected, she said. But a public education campaign to get the nation to make changes - much like the effort to reduce smoking did in recent decades – along with enabling legislation, can help.  

“We will wish we had instituted changes earlier to lessen the impact of climate change and the health-related effects. We need innovative solutions,” she said. “This ends with a call to action.” 


The National Center for Environmental Information reports that in 2020:

Greenhouse gases were the highest on record, with carbon dioxide at its highest level since measurement began 62 years ago, even accounting for the estimated 6 percent to 7 percent reduction resulting from the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

Global average sea level rose to a new record high for the ninth consecutive year, thanks to melting glaciers and warming oceans.

There were 102 named tropical storms, higher than the 1981–2010 average of 85, and there were a record 30 named storms in the North Atlantic hurricane basin, up from the previous high of 28 in 2005.

It was the warmest year on record for Europe, with all five of the warmest years occurring since 2014.