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  1. Opinion

How climate change is hurting public health | Column

The sun sets behind Georgia Power's coal-fired Plant Scherer, one of the nation's top carbon dioxide emitters, in Juliette, Ga. This pollution contributes to climate change. People need to understand the health impacts of climate change. [AP photo | Branden Camp (2017)]
Published Jul. 23

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

In the past month, the Tampa Bay Times has published several stories regarding human suffering. At first glance they seem unrelated. In fact, they all have the same underlying cause: Climate change.

A June story recounted how a 14-year-old boy collapsed during football drills in the late afternoon heat and later died. A story the following day highlighted concerns of persistent emotional fragility in students eight months after Hurricane Michael. Other stories this month were about toxic algae and flesh eating bacteria.

All of these situations are related to climate change. Most Americans recognize climate change is real and caused by burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, most remain unaware that climate change is harming our health today. Here are six major ways climate change is hurting public health:

1. Extreme heat. Heat waves kill more people than all other disasters combined, and they are increasing. The number of visits to hospitals for heat illness increased 133 percent from 1997 to 2006, and they are expected to double by 2030. Heat-related illnesses include heat rash, cramps and heat exhaustion up to fatal heat strokes. I led an emergency team that successfully treated a comatose 17-year-old football player with an internal temp of 107 degrees. It was called "heat exhaustion" in the field, but it required very aggressive treatment.

2. Waterborne diseases. The seas have risen and are more acidic. The water is warmer, causing increased evaporation. Increased evaporation and warmer air holding more water means more severe storms and heavier rainfall. Heavier rainfalls cause increased runoff of animal waste and fertilizers which, respectively, carry germs and feed toxic algae blooms.

3. Mental health changes. Climate change and the extreme weather events it causes increased aggressive behavior, violence and crime. Extreme weather events increase stress and psychiatric consequences. The 1,000 year flood in Louisiana in 2016 increased the incidence of anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts and actions in those affected by the storm. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, women in temporary housing attempted suicide 78 times more frequently than women not affected by the storms.

4. Severe weather. Climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of downpours, droughts and hurricanes. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 represent the only time in recorded history that three Category 4 storms struck the United States in the same year.

5. Air pollution. Increased ambient temperature causes smog, increases pollen and leads to wildfires. Smoke from wildfires can trigger asthma events and can also precipitate heart attacks and strokes.

6. Vectors of disease. Rising temperatures have increased the geographic range of arthropods including ticks and mosquitoes. The range of the black-legged tick that carries Lyme disease has doubled. Aedes genus mosquitoes which carry yellow fever, dengue and Zika, bite more often in warmer weather; and we are their food.

Climate change is affecting public health in multiple and substantial ways. Our responses must also be multiple and aggressive. We must, of course, stop burning fossil fuels. We must also anticipate and support the needs of those of us at greatest risk: the young, the old, the poor and those with chronic disease.

Dr. Paul F. Robinson lives in Tarpon Springs.

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