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The Impact of Climate Change on Public Health

May 5, 2022
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

The biggest cause of concern when it comes to climate change is how it affects the planet. Global temperatures are increasing, causing glaciers to melt in the Antarctic and sea levels to rise. Animals are migrating towards higher altitudes due to the more comfortable temperatures. Oceans are becoming more acidic, killing marine life. Many of these changes are already irreversible. But not only is climate change slowly destroying animal habitats and ecosystems, it’s starting to take its toll on humans as well. 

 

Perhaps the biggest killer associated with climate change is air pollution. Climate change causes concentrations of ground-level ozone, also known as smog, to increase. Breathing in smog can cause decreased lung function, asthma, and even lung cancer. Low- and middle-income countries suffer the most from these effects. 

 

But make no mistake, the effects are felt in first-world countries as well. The WHO estimates that 9 out of 10 people breathe air contaminated by pollutants, while 4.2 million people die every year as a result of smog. A further 7 million die premature deaths from outdoor and household air pollution. The biggest sources of outdoor pollution? Vehicles, power generators, heating systems, and factories.

 

Global warming is another cause of climate change. The planet’s temperatures have been steadily increasing over the past few decades; a phenomenon attributed to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Not only do these increases in temperature affect the planet, they also affect its inhabitants. More people are dying from heat-related afflictions beyond the obvious heat stroke; surprisingly, cardiovascular and respiratory disease can also be caused by extreme temperatures. Experts predict that temperatures will continue to rise to staggering levels in the coming years.

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Finally, the mental health toll of climate change is striking. Millions of people around the world suffer from depression, anxiety, and related conditions. These conditions can be triggered, or made worse, by climate change. It may sound unbelievable, but it’s true: Climate change can cause extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and heat waves, and those who are directly affected by these disasters will undoubtedly have poorer mental health and higher levels of stress. For example, researchers found that during Hurricane Katrina, people experienced higher levels of anxiety and PTSD. 

 

Some people with mental conditions are also affected by heat. Heat waves, no matter if they’re caused by climate change or not, can cause depression and anxiety. Those suffering from severe mental illness often take medications, which can be weakened or rendered ineffective by heat. Studies also show that suicide rates rise with temperatures.  

 

As climate change escalates, we will continue to see the effects in real-time; on the planet and on those living on it. Governments must take action to stop the spread of damage before it’s too late. 

 

Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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