Advocates of Obama plan predict fewer illnesses
President Barack Obama’s speech last week laying out his climate action plan gratified public health advocates worried about the harmful effects of climate change on child and adult asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases, heart disease, diabetes, and other air- and heatrelated conditions, as well as water-borne and insect-borne diseases.
The president’s plan calls for a cut in greenhouse-gas emissions, with new carbon dioxide standards for power plants, the country’s greatest producer of carbon pollution, as well as money pledged toward the development of clean energy.
“Implementing new power plant rules could prevent countless premature deaths, heart attacks and cases of chronic bronchitis, reduce co-pollutants and slow hospital utilization rates that contribute to rising health care costs,” American Public Health Association Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin said in a statement. He called the implementation of such standards “the difference between a long, healthy life or debilitating, expensive chronic illness for hundreds of thousands of American children and adults.”
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says 25 million Americans, including more than 7 million children, have asthma, while 50 million Americans have allergies. Those asthma and allergy numbers are significantly higher than they were just a little over a decade ago. In 2001, about 20 million people in the U.S. had asthma. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of Americans with asthma rose by 25%, from about 1 in 14 people to 1 in 12. And although it is difficult for experts to pinpoint exactly why these rates have risen, it is widely agreed upon that increased air pollution and allergens worsen the symptoms for those with asthma and allergies.
Young children and the elderly, those living in urban environments and low-income populations tend to be more susceptible to heat and respiratory illnesses. In 2009, about 1 in 10 children had asthma, and the following year, 3 in 5 children with asthma experienced at least one asthma attack in the previous 12 months.
Increasing heat waves, droughts and wildfires thought to be related to climate change also contribute to health problems. Wildfires are currently burning in California, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Hawaii and Alaska, where temperatures peaked at a nearrecord 91 degrees last week.
“When you have wildfires, you have an increase in fine particulate air pollution,” said Barbara Gottlieb, director of environment and health at Physicians for Social Responsibility. Inhalation of these particles can cause irritation. The finer particles can lodge in the lungs, creating a more serious impact.
According to the AAFA and the National Wildlife Federation, warmer temperatures and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide encourage the growth of ragweed, the main trigger of fall hay fever. Pollination seasons are starting earlier and lasting later than they once did, with the U.S. Global Change Research Program reporting that pollen seasons have been extended by more than two weeks since 1995.
Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the STARx Allergy and Asthma Center in Springfield, N.J., and his colleagues project pollen increasing by 20% to 30% by the year 2020. “Whether it’s pollen or pollution, it can make allergies worse,” Bielory said.
As climate change triggers more catastrophic storm and water events, such as superstorm Sandy and major flooding of the Red River, indoor allergens from the likes of mold, dust mites and cockroaches increasingly become a concern. Any of these can make breathing more difficult, and at worst, increase the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
Some experts caution, however, that it’s scientifically uncertain what causes such health problems at the individual level. “It’s hard to know in a given individual what their attack is due to,” said Dr. David Peden, chief of the division of pediatric allergy, immunology, rheumatology and infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Peden said climate change is creating a real-life “experiment” involving billions of human subjects. It’s “an experiment that I don’t want to conduct, but I think we will.”
Reversing the health effects of climate change, or at least stopping them in their tracks, is what many public health organizations hope can be accomplished under Obama’s plan. “That change begins to occur is the important thing,” Benjamin said. “If you don’t start now, you’ll look back in 10 years and think we’ve lost 10 years.”
The number of Americans with asthma rose by 25% between 2001 and 2009.