climate change


Asthma, Lyme Disease, Salmonella: How Climate Change May Worsen Your Health

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks  in Washington in 2014. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks in Washington in 2014. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

The link between climate change and extreme weather is widely known. But as the planet warms, what about the risks to your own personal health?

I asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, a Boston native in town to deliver the commencement address at UMass Boston (her alma mater), to give some specific examples of how climate change can impact human health. Here, edited, is our conversation.

RZ: So, feel free to get scary here, what should people know about climate change and their own health?

GM: As temperatures rise, smog gets worse and allergy seasons get longer, which makes it harder for our kids to breathe. We know that increasing the ozone, the ground level smog, makes it difficult for kids — and also the elderly — to breathe, it impacts their lung function. So, you’re going to see a dramatic rise in the number of kids with asthma who experience bad air days.

So, the allergy season gets longer, and this is related to the warmer temperatures as well as the later fall frosts, which means plants produce pollen later in the year. The length of the ragweed pollen season has increased in 10 of 11 locations studied in the Central U.S. and Canada.

This season is awful: I have a little allergy this year for the first time. I found myself sneezing, my eyes watering. Even the dog went on some kind of antihistamine. I felt sorry for her.

You also mentioned ticks, what will happen in their world?

Warmer temperatures also bring increases in vector-borne diseases — Lyme disease, mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and expanded seasons. What we see is that the Lyme disease areas are expanding and the number of cases is increasing. Among the states where Lyme disease is most common [New Hampshire, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts], on average, these five states now report 50 to 90 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

You can clearly see the geographic region expand. Also, West Nile Virus is expanding. Our climate assessment tracks geography and seasons getting longer, expanding. As temperatures get higher, the entire ecosystem changes. I was in Aspen, the winters are getting shorter.

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Are there any other diseases we should brace for?

There are also water and food borne diseases: salmonella, that relates to food potentially sitting out, the higher the temperature the more salmonella outbreaks. The same with water — anything that’s a bacteria — it’s going to increase in warmer weather. Continue reading

Could Climate Change Affect Flu?

flu shot

For filing in the folder labeled “Hmmmm,” as in “Interesting theory. Let’s see.”

In a helpful Q&A on this year’s flu season and flu in general, Mother Jones writes that one reason flu tends to spread in winter is that the virus is known to thrive in low humidity, a condition common in the winter cold. Mother Jones senior editor Kiera Butler has an “Aha” moment: “So that’s why the flu is so bad this year — the drought! So climate change actually made the flu worse, right?” But nothing is so simple…

Wouldn’t it be nice if epidemiology were that easy? Unfortunately, it’s not. If that were the case, you’d never see the flu in hot, humid places. But there’s just as much flu in Florida right now as there is in some parts of Canada. Other variables make it impossible to predict flu seasons based on weather alone.

It’s worth noting, though, that in a paper last year, [flu researcher Jeffrey] Shaman and his colleagues did document that each of the four flu pandemics of the 20th century were preceded by La Niña cycles, likely because birds mingled with each other differently during these unusual weather patterns. The flu strains that they were carrying probably hybridized and created a strain so new that humans had no immunity to it. Since, as we recently learned from this Climate Desk video, climate change does interact with El Niño/La Niña cycles, it’s not completely out of the question that global warming could affect flu transmission, at least indirectly.

Readers? Care to speculate?

Sandy’s Timing Underscores Candidates’ Silence On Climate Change


As you sit at home wondering whether the apple tree outside will soon fall on your car and consider the benefits of starting a really, really long movie for your kids right now, think on this: Hurricane Sandy may be the beginning of a new normal of extreme weather. Perhaps not “normal” really, but at least the kind of record-breaking, life-threatening, all-hands-on-deck event that climate change experts have been warning us about. Here’s Tom Zeller Jr. writing in the Huffington Post:

Today, another multibillion-dollar weather disaster — the very sort that scientists have been predicting for years would increase in frequency and intensity as the planet heats up — is now bearing down on the American East Coast. Roads and subways and homes will flood and lives might well be lost (the death toll in the Caribbean already is as high as 65). Property damages from wind and storm surges could break records. And as many as 10 million people will likely lose power once Hurricane Sandy comes ashore somewhere along the New Jersey coast later tonight.

The irony of Sandy’s timing — just 8 days before the election — given the candidates’ outrageous silence on the issue of climate change, hasn’t escaped folks who have been screaming for some time that we’re dithering while the planet heats up. Continue reading

Big Weather Swings Could Hurt Health, Especially Of Old And Sick


In case you missed this piece on Radio Boston yesterday, take note: wild fluctuations in the weather (which we endured this winter and may face this summer) can be bad for your health — even possibly fatal if you are elderly and suffering from a chronic medical condition, according to a new report by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. And this phenomenon of crazy swings in the temperature is predicted to worsen as climate change progresses.

“Day to day changes in temperature…that’s what seems to be dangerous,” Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard School of of Public Health tells Radio Boston. He adds: “We think its very likely that the health impacts are going to get worse in the future.”

From the Harvard press release:

New research from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) suggests that seemingly small changes in summer temperature swings—as little as 1°C more than usual—may shorten life expectancy for elderly people with chronic medical conditions, and could result in thousands of additional deaths each year. While previous studies have focused on the short-term effects of heat waves, this is the first study to examine the longer-term effects of climate change on life expectancy. Continue reading

Our Odd Autumn, Climate Change And Health

You may have noticed that it’s an odd, odd fall here in Massachusetts. Not just the freak early snowstorm but the endlessly balmy days since then. Our learned colleague, Heather Goldstone, writes here on her superb blog Climatide about the warming climate’s effects on foliage, and one possible factor: the changing composition of forests. I deeply hope the headline — “Looks like we can kiss leafpeeping goodbye” — turns out to be wrong.

Climate change doesn’t just affect scenery — it affects health. Heather has also posted a succinct summary of a recent Atlantic piece by Harvard public health expert Paul Epstein on seven potential effects of climate change on human health. (The post is a kind of “In memoriam” for Dr. Epstein, who died Sunday in Boston.)  Read Heather’s full summary here — the effects range from asthma to infectious disease to hunger.

She ends with Dr. Epstein’s final note: “The most profound implications for human health, however, lie with the impacts of climate change on the ecological systems — our life support systems — that underlie our health and well-being.” I thought of that today when I read this Globe story about acorns becoming scarce this fall. It’s hard to feel bad for those pesky squirrels, but as a possible harbinger of things to come….

Warming Oceans May Be Hazardous To Your Health

warming oceans can bring new health hazards

Here, courtesy of Climatide, our sister blog on Cape Cod, are two reasons that ocean warming due to climate change could be harmful to your health (think Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and blooms of disease-causing bacteria).

When dust storms are carried across the ocean by tradewinds (and Lipp showed photos of a “dust event” that reached the Florida coast – an increasingly common occurrence, she said), the iron-laden dust acts like a fertilizer for ocean microbes….But Lipp said iron fertilization has a sinister side – it also induces disease-causing bacteria to bloom. Bacteria in the Vibrio family (cholera, a.k.a. Vibrio cholerae, is the most famous cousin in the clan) can increase their populations by more than 3000% within 24 hours of dust fertilization in the lab. Lipp says that may account for an 85% increase in U.S. cases of illnesses caused by oceanic Vibrio bacteria … since 1996! That increase is particularly striking in light of the fact that bacterial illnesses caused by lapses in food or personal hygiene have decreased significantly over the same period. Lipp admits she can’t pin the increase on climate change directly, but says it’s an area of active research.