Climate Change and its implications on our health

Written by Lisi Wagener

Posted on 07/10/21

We all know climate change is a bad thing. Greenhouse gases cause global temperatures to rise, extreme weather changes such as floods, storms and fires, rising ocean levels, animals and plants are at risk of extinction, etc. Not all of these things affect everyone equally however. In moderate climates like in central Europe it can be easy to ignore the dire situation in other parts of the world and while we might not be affected by hurricanes or fire storms here, we are still at risk. Global warming doesn’t only affect nature but it also has an impact on our health.

Temperature related mortality

One of the most palpable consequences might be the increasingly warmer summers. In 2003 there were already an excess of 70.000 heat related deaths during the summer in a combined 12 European countries compared to the summers before. In 2015 there were 3000 deaths due to the heat only in France. A study called PESETA predicts for the 27 EU member states in about 60 years, that there will be an extra 60.000-165.000 heat related deaths every year. But not only heat related deaths are estimated to increase, cold-related deaths are supposed to go up at a similar trend.

But why are high temperatures so dangerous? Many people are at risk of dehydration during summer. These are either elderly people who tend to not drink enough water, but also the younger generations by drinking alcohol, because alcohol is a diuretic, an agent causing fluid loss. This means the urine production exceeds the amount of fluid consumed and results therefore in a loss of water for the body. People with existing diseases are also at risk, some take drugs that repress their ability to regulate their body temperature, some can’t take the stress of the heat on their heart or develop blood clots.

Air pollution

The gases produced by cars, agriculture, industries, etc. are not just elevating our global temperatures but also putting us at risk for acute and long-term health issues. These issues are caused by particulate matter 2.5 or PM2.5, which are very tiny particles that we breathe in and that penetrate deep into our lungs. In an acute setting inhalation of PM2.5 can cause irritation or the airways leading to coughing, sneezing and the feeling of being short of breath and it can also irritate your eyes. With long term exposure these particles can permanently affect lung function, lead to asthma and cardiovascular diseases and even cause lung cancer.

Currently about 5 million people per year die due to diseases caused by air pollution. This is 9% of global deaths on average with pretty big differences depending on the country. In southeast Asian countries like India this percentage even goes up to nearly 13%, which is more than 1 in 10 people.

Plastic

The plastic we waste in our daily life inevitably ends up in our air, food and water. When this plastic enters our body we face a multitude of consequences.

Bisphenol A or BPA, a popular plastic additive, can mess with our hormones. It is similar to the female sex hormone estrogen and can have a negative influence on fertility, but it can also disrupt the thyroid axis. The thyroid gland is an important regulator of our metabolism and a disruption can lead to changes in our energy levels, weight, temperature regulation, etc.

Other types of plastics have similar effects and overall the exposure to microplastics increases your risk for certain types of cancers, inflammation, cardiovascular diseases, infertility, mental disorders, digestive issues, … Along with all of these health risks the microplastics also attract bacteria, which enter our body with the plastic and can then cause an infection.

Tropical Diseases

Tropical diseases are defined as diseases originating from tropical or subtropical areas and include, but are not exclusive to malaria, dengue fever or cholera. They can be caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites and are often transmitted by vectors such as lice or mosquitos.

Malaria for example is a parasitic disease affecting the red blood cells and is transmitted by mosquitoes. This disease alone is responsible for the death of over 1 million Africans each year.

Vectors have an ideal temperature at which they transmit diseases, which is why the colder temperatures in the northern hemisphere were a good protection against such infectious diseases in the past. The increasing temperatures due to climate change however make northern countries also a habitable zone for disease transmitting mosquitoes.

If global warming continues and temperatures keep rising even countries like the Netherlands will be seriously affected. There have already been reported outbreaks of tropical diseases in countries like France, Italy or Croatia and scientists are warning us to expect future outbreaks.

Sources

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