To Nurses, Climate Change Is a Health Crisis They Already Witness

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Nurse using inhaler on childAlthough it often seems like we won’t see the major effects of global warming for years to come, the reality is that climate change has already been impacting people’s overall health – and nurses can attest to that.

Asthma is a primary example. The number of Americans who have asthma increased 28 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This continues a trend of several decades. The CDC reports that about 25 million Americans have asthma, about one in 12. It was closer to one in 14 just a decade ago.

“Climate change is the biggest health care crisis we have ever seen,” says Erin Carrera, a clinical nurse who represents the California Nurses Association at the University of California-San Francisco. “The World Health Organization reported that one of eight deaths globally in 2012 were directly attributable to air pollution. And that’s just air pollution — it doesn’t include deaths related to water, soil, and food contamination, vector-borne illnesses that are on the rise in areas affected by climate change, or deaths caused by extreme weather events.”

Facts about climate change

There are clear ties to smog and allergens that are exacerbated by heat, according to a study by the Global Health Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors cited 56 medical journal articles in coming to the conclusion that smoggy heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense, and that adverse health conditions are a major component of the air pollution that is being worsened by global warming.

Unfortunately, there is no relief in sight. Climate change appears to be more than a cyclical reversal of the Ice Age, because the rapid rate at which the warmth is increasing continues to be unprecedented and alarming. The New York Times reported that 2014 was the hottest on Earth since recordkeeping began in 1880, and that the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997.

Yet more than half the general public simply hasn’t thought much about the health consequences of global warming, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Nearly half could not cite any health problems global warming might make worse.

Impact of climate change on health

One sector of the population who does recognize the consequences of global warming are nurses. They already see allergies and air pollution as prime causes of many patients’ problems and are beginning to reckon with maximizing their roles to help deal with a growing onslaught of afflictions, ranging from increased food poisoning to the Ebola virus. The Wisconsin study also mentioned the likelihood of food shortages and increases in mental health crises.

“We cannot separate climate change from human health and the overall human condition,” says UCSF’s Carrera.

A nurse therefore can assume these problems will not be going away in our lifetime, and that it might be wise to specialize in a prevalent problem or solution.

Climate change and asthma

Asthma sufferers are likely to present daunting problems. In addition to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide and impurities in the air, levels of pollens that trigger allergies and asthma, such as ragweed, grow more prolifically as the carbon dioxide and heat levels increase and allergy seasons grow longer.

Some air pollution, such as diesel exhaust, can interact with pollen and congest the lungs exponentially. Increasing rainfall and humidity increase the growth of indoor fungi and molds that also worsen asthma. Pollutants are spewing at a higher rate as formerly undeveloped countries now are leading sources of pollution from manufacturing and auto exhaust.

Furthermore, the rapid thaw of permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere is causing not only rapid melting of ice and rising sea levels but also is starting to fuel a stew of chemicals in Siberia that includes massive storehouses of methane, a gas that is a major contributor to air pollution.

Climate change and disease

Scientists estimate that more than 300 new infectious diseases appeared in humans from 1940 to 2004. Some of them involved pandemics like AIDS and the Ebola virus, but even those that have become less deadly, such as West Nile virus, create considerable health care issues.

One of the reasons humans are contracting new pathogens is the percentages coming from other animals, mostly in the wild, are increasing.

Salmonella reproduces more rapidly as temperatures rise, and that can make a difference not only in temperate locations but also in places like Alaska, where a bacterium formerly seen only in the subtropics was blamed for a cruise ship outbreak among passengers who ate raw oysters.

Aside from acute cases that make news, chronic intestinal disorders are also on the increase, according to a study conducted by Dutch and Belgian scientists.

Importance of climate change education

The good news is that many nurses are dealing not only with the problem but also the search for solutions; they are increasingly trying to reach the public, as well as governments, with their messages.

Aside from the education nurses impart in hospitals and at clinics, they are taking part in demonstrations.

Thousands of nurses were among the estimated 400,000 people who demonstrated at the People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014. Several members of the 185,000-strong National Nurses United were among them, including one of the NNU’s leaders, Jean Ross, Yes magazine reported. “It’s going to get bigger and bigger,” said Ross, an acute care nurse. “Organizers are looking for action from world leaders, not just talk.”


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