Some people celebrate spring when the first daffodils appear in their yards; my equinox arrives via itchy eyes and runny noses of allergy-sufferers in my clinic. Just like the first frost evokes new flu viruses, and May’s lengthening sun rays bring heat stroke to mind, as a physician, I am inherently attuned to the ways that the world around us impacts our health.
Like many other health professionals, I am increasingly concerned about the health threats posed by climate change, and I believe that it is my obligation as a healer to help spread this message about global warming: Prevention is the best medicine.
I serve a predominantly Latino community facing a variety of economic and health challenges, and I see firsthand how global warming’s impacts fall hardest on patients who have the least resources to bounce back. Come by my clinic on a hot, smoggy day, and you will see how the growing smog pollution triggered by climate change wears down on my patients with respiratory illness. Nationwide, one in two Latinos live in areas that violate clean air rules. Scientists predict that if air pollution remains at current levels, “Red Alert” days of high smog levels will increase by 68 percent in the 50 largest U.S. cities by mid-century. Climate change compounds other sources of health inequity, and for the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck with limited primary healthcare, extra days in the emergency room are not a reality they can afford.
Air pollution is not the only health risk tied to global warming. Hurricanes, droughts, floods, blizzards and heat waves are expected to become more frequent and intense in many areas of the country due to climate change. These events can affect patients directly by causing heat stroke or heat exhaustion, or pose indirect health risks such as disease outbreaks from debris-filled water, more frequent and widespread wildfires during drought, and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in affected communities.
Diseases transmitted by food sources, water, insects and rodents are likely to spread to new areas in a warming climate. In the United States, these risks may include a wider distribution of Lyme disease; spreading gastroenteritis from contaminated water after floods; rodent -borne viruses such as Hantavirus following heavy rains; and mosquito-borne viruses such as West Nile virus becoming more common and widespread. Warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide have also caused an earlier onset of the spring pollen season in North America, exacerbating allergy symptoms with significant consequences for respiratory health.
As global warming changes our exposure and resilience to illness and injury, the hardest-hit tend to be low-income families with other health and economic challenges. Those most at risk include children, pregnant women, older adults, people with chronic conditions, outdoor workers, and those in coastal and low-lying areas. These groups of people must be empowered with an understanding of what heat waves, extreme storms, and other risks associated with climate change could mean to their health, and our public health and medical systems must prepare to deliver the care that they need.
As we saw with Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, healthcare professionals are at the front lines treating victims of extreme weather and the other impacts of climate change. We must also be at the forefront of the national dialogue on global warming, helping to shape public policy that avoids its worst impacts and protects communities from the climate disruptions that is already locked in.
President Obama’s second term presents a unique opportunity to hold him to his commitments to clean up our energy sector, strengthen our climate response plans for public health, and make our country a leader in the green economy. I urge my fellow physicians, nurses, medical assistants and community health workers to make our voices heard: We see firsthand what is happening in our communities, and we must not wait to act. Prevention is the best medicine.
Evelyn Montalvo-Stanton is a pediatric pulmonologist and collaborates often with Voces Verdes, the national independent, nonpartisan voice of Latino leaders for the environment.