The looming effects of climate change on humans – of rising temperatures and extreme weather phenomena, are no new concern. While the physically destructive consequences of climate change have already begun running their course, the direct impacts of climate change on human health are now being documented in every biosphere.


Air/Atmosphere

  • Outdoor air pollutants, expelled by motor vehicles, factories, powerplants, forest fires and heating systems, all contribute to poor air quality. Inhalation of these pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and fine particulate matter (any solid or liquid droplets of matter that are <2.5 um in diameter including aerosols, smoke, fumes, dust, or ash), can irritate the respiratory tract. Chronic irritant exposure and the associated coughing and wheezing can lead to damage of the lungs (emphysema). In some instances, the respiratory tract produces excessive phlegm to trap and expel irritants, which can trigger the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Studies have indicated a rise in the risk of developing asthma with poorer air quality, worsening of symptoms and a rise in respiratory emergency department visits.

Land/Lithosphere

  • The slow decomposition of plastics is a long-held environmental concern and has led to nation-wide policies on the use of plastic (although the ban on single use plastics in Canada was recently overturned). Why? Microplastic debris can interfere with soil moisture – reducing the fertility of soil and therefore its agricultural capacity. Moreover, toxins slowly released by plastic are taken up by plants and can accumulate up the food chain until they reach human consumption. Such large scale impacts leave great uncertainty for future availability and quality of food.

Water/Hydrosphere

  • Water bodies are often inundated with harsh detergents as a result of surface runoff, leading to uninhabitable conditions for aquatic wildlife. Another downstream effect (no pun intended) is overwhelmed water drainage systems which can lead to flooding, even in urban areas. How does this impact human health? Repeated flooding can compromise the barriers of indoor and outdoor spaces, allowing for mold and fungi growth that can lead to chronic respiratory illness. Further, the retention of water in plastic litter leads to tiny pools of still water which are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos that can act as vectors for viruses such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika.

Whether by air, water or sea, the biosphere that humans inhabit is rapidly changing. Expansion of cities means encroachment into forested areas, depletion of resources from wildlife and forced displacement of native wildlife. For example, as temperatures rise around the planet, northern latitudes begin to resemble equatorial climates. Mosquitos, normally non-endemic in these regions, are able to survive at northern latitudes and carry disease-causing pathogens. All of this contributes to the rising incidence of zoonotic diseases.

While the effects of climate change may have been an ominous warning in the hallways of our childhood schools, the consequences are already making appearances on the weather report more often than ever before. It is only a matter of time before climate change-related health effects turn up on medical records.


References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, August 2). Climate change and infectious diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncezid/what-we-do/climate-change-and-infectious-diseases/index.html

Climate adaptation – indoor fungi, mold and health | US EPA. (n.d.-a). https://www.epa.gov/arc-x/climate-adaptation-indoor-fungi-mold-and-health

Government of Ontario, Ministry of the Environment. (n.d.). Notice: Scheduled network maintenance. Fine Particulate Matter. https://www.airqualityontario.com/science/pollutants/particulates.php#:~:text=The%20composition%20of%20particulate%20matter,system%20further%20than%20larger%20particles.

The health effects of Air Pollution. Gouvernement du Québec. (n.d.). https://www.quebec.ca/en/health/advice-and-prevention/health-and-environment/the-health-effects-of-air-pollution#c524

Paul, T. (2023a, June 5). Plastic pollution and Agriculture. reNature. https://www.renature.co/articles/plastic-pollution-and-agriculture/#:~:text=Plastics%20accumulate%20in%20the%20soil,rivers%2C%20lakes%2C%20and%20oceans

Paul, T. (2023b, June 5). Plastic pollution and Agriculture. reNature. https://www.renature.co/articles/plastic-pollution-and-agriculture/#:~:text=Plastics%20accumulate%20in%20the%20soil,rivers%2C%20lakes%2C%20and%20oceans.

Research brief April 6, 2021 Technical University of Mombasa & Stanford … (n.d.-b). https://globalhealth.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/SGH-Brief-v9-1.pdf

Stober, E. (2023, November 18). The Federal Court just overturned Ottawa’s single-use plastic ban – national. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/10096664/plastic-ban-overturned-court/

Tiotiu AI;Novakova P;Nedeva D;Chong-Neto HJ;Novakova S;Steiropoulos P;Kowal K; (n.d.). Impact of air pollution on asthma outcomes. International journal of environmental research and public health. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32867076/

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Air pollution and your health. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution/index.cfm#:~:text=Air%20pollution%20can%20affect%20lung,obstructive%20pulmonary%20disease%20(COPD).

United Nations. (n.d.). Climate change and malaria – a complex relationship. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/climate-change-and-malaria-complex-relationship#:~:text=An%20increase%20in%20temperature%2C%20rainfall,it%20was%20not%20reported%20earlier.

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