As most of us go about our daily lives, climate change and planetary health may seem relatively removed. Yet all it takes is a few dots to connect our individual lives with the bigger environmental picture. In this Part 1 of our 2-part Climate Change series, we’ll shine the light on 8 very real points of health impact that will affect you and those you love.
Planetary health is firmly entrenched in our guiding principles here at Dr. Kara Fitzgerald. We maintain that human ecology—including social, built and natural environments—is an integral part of creating lasting human health and vitality. In addition, that the health of future generations will be determined by how we act today. Our actions will not only create the environment in which our future generations will live, but will also be handed down through epigenetic imprints that persist on our DNA over generations.
We know that climate change is human-caused and that the solution will be human-driven. In fact, uncannily-timed in driving home this point – at the time of writing this article a major heat wave in Europe is breaking all-time record high temperatures for June in seven countries – Poland, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Andorra. France has set a new all-time high record temperature for any month of 45C (114.6 degrees Fahrenheit), as has the Swiss locality of Davos, home of the World Economic Forum.
Environmental issues are clearly on people’s minds. Early 2019 saw an unprecedented level of climate change activism around the world, from rallies to school-skipping. The likely healthcare cost impacts of climate change are under scrutiny, too. As the US Global Change Research Program outlines in their most recent report, annual US health-related costs could be about 50% less under a lower greenhouse emission scenario compared with a higher emissions scenario.
Aside from the immediate human morbidity and mortality risks of any extreme environmental event, here are eight longer-lasting, and perhaps less immediately obvious, connections between events related to climate change and human health. These connections are especially relevant within Functional Medicine, as they can have profound effects on chronic disease states.
Impact 1: Chemical Contamination
During the 2012 Hurricane Sandy, hazardous chemical containers from homes and businesses were swept into nearby marshlands by the storm surge. Reporting from the Associated Press indicated that almost half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater mixed with storm water came out from just one of the 500 chemical plants present in the Houston area hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. This wastewater contained benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and other known human carcinogens. Subsequent soil testing at a nearby recreation park revealed elevated levels of dioxins, PCBs, and other chemicals typically created in the burning of coal and gas.
These chemicals are known to contribute to many different chronic conditions.
Impact 2: Mold Exposure
Flooding also creates another long-term problem: mold. Storm surge waters from Hurricane Sandy affected over 375,000 homes. Delays in damage remediation, ineffective remediation, or oftentimes no remediation at all, created significant mold growth.
Connections between mold exposure and upper respiratory tract symptoms an exacerbation of asthma are widely accepted. In Functional Medicine, mold exposure is also recognized as a trigger of non-respiratory symptoms in susceptible individuals, including neurological and/or immune.
Impact 3: Air Quality
Increasing frequency and severity of wildfires due to climate change is already impacting air quality and health. Wildfire pollution isn’t localized either – smoke can be blown distances of hundreds of miles. For instance, a 2002 wildfire in Quebec, Canada, resulted in a 30-fold increase in particle pollution in Baltimore, United States, about 1,000 miles downwind.
Multi-study reviews have found that most research finds an association between wildfire pollution exposure and increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, although the full breadth of long-term health impacts have yet to be fully elucidated.
Ground-level ozone concentrations are increasing in certain areas such as the Midwestern United States and are projected to result in an additional 200-550 premature deaths in the region by 2050. Ozone at ground level is a harmful air pollutant, a primary component of ‘smog’, and is formed more readily in higher temperatures. ‘Ozone season’, as it’s known, is expected to increase in intensity and duration, extending from summer to fall.
Impact 4: Increased Pollen
Rising overall temperatures, CO2 levels, earlier spring, and summer temperatures that extend longer into fall will increase pollen quantity and duration, according to the American Lung Association and published peer-reviewed research. Researchers publishing a retrospective analysis in The Lancet concur, arguing that this will lead to an increase in the incidence of allergies and asthma, as well as more severe symptoms.
Impact 5: Food Bioactives at Risk
Farming production is already feeling the strain of climate change due to more extreme temperatures, drought and the loss of nitrogen in farming soils. Yet with 7.2 billion people to feed around the world, more food is needed, not less.
One option for scalable food production is vertical farming. Softbank, IKEA, Google Ventures and the Sheikh of Dubai are among those investing millions in the future of this emerging industry. Even though they are often described as nutrient-comparative (despite the scarcity of research) and nutrient-adjustable based on the growing liquid, foods grown outside of their normal soil environment have dramatically reduced microbiome quantity and diversity. This is an important knowledge gap, given how important symbiotic microbes are for human health. In addition, wild-grown plants typically contain higher levels of polyphenols, since their biosynthesis is promoted by exposure to external adversity. Quercetin and resveratrol, for instance are synthesized in plants during times of stress such as infection, starvation and dehydration. Some external adversity scenarios can be simulated in hydroponic growing environments, but most food producers aren’t thinking of these factors unless consumers demand them.
Impact 6: More Processed Foods?
Another proposed food production solution is plant-based meat alternatives, touted as the ‘future of meat’. We’re thinking here of products such as the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, which produce amazingly convincing non-meat forms of… well, meat. Yet, a quick scan of their packaging reminds us that there is little whole food, if any, to be found in the laundry list of ingredients. These are simply another example of heavily-processed, high sodium foods that we wouldn’t be recommending.
Beyond Burger Ingredient List:
Impossible Burger Ingredient List:
Impact 7: Chronic Stealth Infections
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we can expect increased numbers of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease (and coinfections) and West Nile virus due to climate change. Milder winters are to blame since colder temperatures are needed to kill off ticks during the winter. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science have predicted that the number of Lyme Disease cases in the United States will increase by over 20% in the coming decades, if the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA4) forecasts are realized.
Impact 8: Mental Health
Following Hurricane Sandy, medical centers in the New York area reported over 50% increases in psychiatric emergency room visits and numbers of psychiatric patients. More than 20% of affected residents reported PTSD, 33% reported depression and 46% reported anxiety. Data are similar for those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.
Over time, the disruption of ecosystems that provide employment to many, as well as the need to relocate residences out of the way of the most vulnerable locations will likely add to the burden of mental health concerns.
What To Do?
The good news is that by implementing the principles of Functional Medicine, we are all doing much to improve our environmental impact. Don’t miss our upcoming Part 2 of this article series that connects the dots between Functional Medicine interventions and reduced environmental impact, coming soon!
For those of you who want to get a head start, head on over to these resources to see how you can do more to reduce your own environmental footprint and maybe even start initiatives beyond your personal sphere:
- NASA’s Climate Kids
- National Resources Defense Council
- Environmental Protection Agency
- World Health Organization
- United Nations
- Examples of community-led initiatives (bypassing slow government action), also from NASA
Ps. We love this article co-authored by Dr. Jeffrey Bland title Clinical Ecology – Transforming 21st-Century Medicine with Planetary Health in Mind. In particular, how the ‘omics’ revolution provides a new language through which to describe these important points of connection between planetary and individual health.