Since 2006, research scientist have been preparing for the connection between climate change and health and impact of climate change that would affect the health of both the United States (U.S.) and other countries worldwide. Due to significant health threats, federal agencies such as the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) have established health programs to combat these affects. This paper will explore some of the most prominent health programs available that alleviate the negative affects of global climate change, and discuss preventative measures moving forward. This paper will also highlight environmental factors that cause health scares across the nation and what the nursing field can do to advocate for change to protect our nation’s health. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the importance of global climate change awareness and the importance of health promotion to prevent further decline in the nation’s health status across the globe.
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“Climate change coupled with other natural and human-made health stressors can influence human health and disease in numerous ways”. Public health in the U.S. can be affected by disruptions of physical, biological, and ecological systems, including disturbances originating locally or globally. The health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, food and water-borne illnesses, and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health. Those who are at greater risk for injury include the very young or elderly population, the lack of economic resources, and geographical location.
According to the CDC, when we burn fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, we release carbon dioxide (CO2) which builds up into the atmosphere. When Co2 builds up, it causes the earth’s temperature to rise and it traps the heat like a blanket. This extra trapped heat can disrupt many areas of the environment that can ultimately cause serious illness or even death within the population. Increased Co2 can cause extremes in precipitation that can cause heavy rainfalls or droughts. This can affect the respiratory system due to damp weather conditions that cause mold spores. Living with poor air quality in damp conditions can aggravate asthma symptoms and cause lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
On the other hand, a condition where there is a drought and the environment is dry, the population is more likely to experience dust storms to flash floods. Wildfires have also been a concern associated with drought conditions and affect air quality as well for asthmatics or those who suffer from bronchitis. Higher temperatures can also lead to an increase in allergens and harmful air pollutants. The longer the season remains warm, the longer pollen will remain in the area which can affects those who suffer from respiratory illness or seasonal allergies.
Extreme heat events can trigger heat stroke or even death for the more vulnerable population. A heat wave mortality study was conducted in Chicago over a 19 year period, from 1987-2005. The study revealed a total of 14 heat waves over the 19 year period and each heat wave lasted an average 9.2 days. The average daily number of deaths on non-heat wave days for the months of May–October was 102 deaths per day. For the city of Chicago, this translated to a total of 1,007 (95% CI, 798–1,235) of excess deaths across the 19-year period; approximately 53 death per year attributable to heat waves. With that being said, it would be extremely important to educate the population about staying cool or remaining indoors when the weather is calling for extreme heat temperatures for the day. Nurses should particularly educate parents of small children, the elderly, and clients who suffer with chronic diseases.
A nurse should also advocate for the lower income population, and outdoor workers who have to work in extreme heat conditions as well. Extreme heat conditions can also increase the risk for vector-borne diseases from fleas, ticks, or mosquitoes that can transmit an infectious agent to the population. If seasons remain warm, the winter season becomes milder and shorter, and the summers remain hotter, which places the population at risk for contracting diseases such as Lyme disease or West Nile Virus. Warmer temperatures also attract vectors to contaminated waters that can grow harmful algae and other microbes due to extreme heat conditions (CDC, 2016). Climate change can also lead to heavier downpours that lead to flooding and contaminated water systems.
To prevent the affects of global warming, it may be helpful for the population to reduce activity that causes an increase in Co2 levels. For those who drive to work each day, a secondary mode of transportation would be helpful, such as the metro (if available,) bike riding, or even walking to work to reduce air pollutants from local transportation. The CDC recommends walking to work, as it encourages physical exercise and reduces the rate of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. It is important to educate the population on the use of bug repellent and covering exposed skin when working near water, outdoors, or in extreme heat conditions. If working in wooded areas, it would be important to wear long pants and hats as well to avoid vector-borne illnesses.
Outdoor workers present a greater risk for complications of global warming. Farmers, landscapers, road workers, and construction workers are all at risk for exposure to extreme temperatures in the U.S. and abroad. Excessive workplace heat exposure is determined to be a problem for many of the tropical and subtropical areas of the world as well. When the hourly Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) exceeds 26◦C (79◦F), hourly work capacity is reduced in heavy-labor jobs, and temperatures above 32◦C (90◦F), causes work activity is to be more difficult (Kjellstrom, et al., 2016). Heavy labor in hot humid environments is therefore a particularly serious health risk. An increase in core body temperature and excessive sweating, can lead to dehydration, causing several direct or indirect implications for health and well-being.
According to a study conducted on human performance in extreme heat temperatures outside of the U.S., hundreds of cardiovascular deaths are reported each year among construction workers in populations for Qatar and France. Death numbers in Europe exceed those totals with as many as 70,000 heat-related deaths each year. Other areas like Central America suffer from fatal chronic kidney disease amongst sugar cane harvesters that have been linked to daily dehydration due to excessive sweating while working in hotter work environments (Kjellstrom, et al., 2016 p.99).
Outdoor workers are not the only ones affected from extreme heat temperatures, those who work in factories and workshops in low-income countries are affected as well. Workshop buildings are often without air-conditioning or other effective cooling systems that may be provided in the U.S. Millions of workers in these countries, who often produce low-price clothes, shoes, furniture, and other consumer products for sale in high-income countries, may experience extreme heat exposures on a regular basis, which leads to more a serious illness, injury, or even death.
In early 2009, The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reported that despite the dramatic news reports about hurricanes and tornadoes across the nation, heat waves are in fact the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. and many other places. The UNFCCC stated that “the global health advocacy community must become more engaged in the negotiation of key decisions that will be undertaken in coming years with regard to coordination of an international response to climate change and national-level implementation of international commitments”. Later in 2009, the CDC formally established the Climate and Health Program with a mission to “lead efforts to identify populations vulnerable to climate change, prevent and adapt to current and anticipated health impacts, and ensure that systems are in place to detect and respond to current and emerging health threats”.
In 2015, it was reported that negotiations took place in Paris for nearly 200 nations that came together to accept a climate change agreement that was considered a “pivotal moment for global health, and a turning point in work to mitigate and adapt to climate change”. The Paris agreement strongly urged developed countries to increase their financial support of mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing and vulnerable nations, with a goal of providing $100 billion annually by 2020. The agreement mandated that “nations will submit updated climate plans every 5 years and beginning in 2023, parties to the agreement will meet every 5 years to assess their progress on all fronts, including adaptation, mitigation and emission reductions.”With programs like these in place, it gives hope to those working within the U.S. and working abroad for better working conditions and better health outcomes as well.
Global health not only affects under-developed countries, but our well-developed countries as well. Knowledge about how extreme temperatures are truly important when it comes to health and wellness in our communities, our workplaces, and our nations across the globe. Being proactive about the reduction of Co2 heat sources is key. Taking steps to reduce Co2 levels by walking to work, or using the appropriate protection when working in extreme temperatures could ultimately save your life and the life of others.