CHI report: Climate change impacts health in United States

May 15, 2017

By COLLEEN SCHRAPPEN

Laura Krausa, system director of advocacy for Catholic Health Initiatives, boiled down reams of research on climate change and its effect on health to underscore the importance of taking action.

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Krausa

"I had attended a clean-air conference presentation by pediatricians on the impact of climate change on children's health in the United States. It had never occurred to me that it was impacting health in the U.S.," Krausa said. "There was something for me in bringing that message closer to home."

Given Englewood, Colo.-based CHI's network of 104 hospitals in 17 states, Krausa's message had the potential to influence more than 100,000 employees. So she got to work creating a resource guide that explained the basic tenets of climate change, examined its relationship to various ailments and offered practical tips on what people could do to reduce greenhouse gases.

The result is CHI's 27-page "Climate Change and Human Health in the United States," which begins with an explanation of weather (short-term atmospheric conditions) vs. climate (average conditions over a significant period of time) and then presents broad yet specific guidance on how the severity or frequency of illness and disease has increased because of climate change. The report is published on the environment resource page of CHA's website.

It covers cardiovascular and neurological diseases, cancers, respiratory distress, animal- and water-borne illnesses, injuries and sickness caused by extreme weather conditions, and nutrition and water scarcity.

"I was shocked at the many ways it's impacting various diseases and disorders," said Krausa, who mined data from the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other resources.

She found that certain groups are more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change: young children, the elderly, pregnant women, low-income communities and people who have pre-existing medical conditions or disabilities.

However, Krausa stressed, "the biggest takeaway should be that climate change is affecting you — right here and right now, whether you know it or not … it's not just a polar bear issue or a third-world country issue."

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Scanlon

For example, the CHI resource guide cites evidence of an increase in the prevalence of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, which may be associated with environmental factors. Higher carbon dioxide levels, more ground ozone and an excess of fine particulates in the air are being blamed for the growing severity of asthma and allergy sensitivities. Even the incidence of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack and stroke, may be influenced by temperature extremes and poor air quality.

Colleen Scanlon, a senior vice president and chief advocacy officer at CHI, cited Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si' … On Care for Our Common Home."

"The encyclical calls all of us to think about the Earth and its inhabitants," said Scanlon. The CHI resource is one manifestation of that call, and also fits into the system's own mission to build healthy communities.

"It lays out a very clear mandate that we need to pay attention to this presently and for future generations," she said. "It feels like an obligation for faith communities, and I think that's what the pope would want us to do as well."

The CHI resource encourages readers to examine their own carbon footprints and to become aware of the behaviors that contribute to greenhouse emissions, including electricity and oil usage, an over-reliance on cars and food choices.

 

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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