Health Impacts of Climate Change and Burning Fossil Fuels

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Increasing levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere bring about human health consequences. The release of toxic pollutants is hardest on vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those with asthma or cardiovascular disease.

TOC and Guide Section
Health findings from the REMI report

CCL commissioned Regional Economic Models, Incorporated (REMI) to examine the impact that our proposal would have on the economy. It also noted the following impacts on health:

  • 13,000 premature deaths avoided annually from improvements in air quality by 2025, with a cumulative total of 227,000 American lives saved over 20 years.
  • The East North Central region including Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin had the most lives saved.
  • Jobs generated in labor-intensive industries like healthcare and retail, which helps explain the creation of 2.1 million jobs by 2025 and 2.8 million by 2035
  • Biggest gain at the national level as well as the biggest increase in employment by major industry.
Asthma and airway diseases

About 1/12 of people, or 30 million, in the U.S. have asthma, and about 4,000 die from it each year in the U.S. [1]  235 million people worldwide are affected, with 180,000 deaths per year. [2] The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 500,000 of the 3.7 millions deaths per year due to outside air pollution are due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections. (2012 data) [3]

Climate change impacts airway disease by increasing ground-level ozone, which can worsen asthma; ozone also irritates the lining of the lungs and reduces lung function. And as with many other health issues wrought by climate change, children’s lungs are damaged more. 

Wildfires create increased particulate matter, and more dust is present in drought-affected areas, which also creates more particulate matter in the air. [4]

Molds in flood-affected areas also worsen lung function and asthma. Infants and children exposed to molds at an early age are two to four times more likely to develop asthma. [5]


The EPA tells us that our annual allergy season is lengthening, the distribution of allergenic plants widens (poleward migration) and the allergens are stronger as the planet warms. Higher CO2 levels increase the growth and pollen production of allergenic plants. [6]

The USDA says that increased carbon dioxide levels will make allergenic weeds more difficult to control with herbicides. [7]

Cardiovascular disease and stroke

Increased ozone formation due to higher temperatures harms pulmonary gas exchange and causes stress on the heart. Increased ozone concentrations are associated with heart attacks.

Increased particulate matter(PM) due to droughts and other conditions is associated with systematic inflammation, compromised heart function, deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and blood vessel dysfunction.

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. 

The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10), which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer. [1]

WHO estimates that some 80% of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes. [2]

Stress and anxiety as a result of extreme weather events are associated with heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, and stress-related cardiomyopathy (heart disease) [3]

Vector-borne and Zoonotic Diseases

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted by another organism, typically mosquitoes, ticks, or mites, carrying the pathogen from one human to another. Common vector borne diseases in the U.S. include Lyme disease, erlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Some currently rarely seen diseases in the U.S. include Dengue fever, malaria, Murine typhus and yellow fever.

Zoonotic diseases are transmitted from animals to humans, either via direct contact or through a vector. An example is Avian flu, though others found in the US include rabies, plague, Q fever, pathogenic E. coli, anthrax, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and tularemia. In 2006, there were 247 million cases of malaria and 881,000 malaria-related deaths worldwide. [1]

As temperatures warm some diseases may spread, such as Lyme disease, as the tick that carries it spreads its range. Also, mosquitoes carrying malaria will move to higher altitudes, exposing many more people in the high-altitude tropics to the disease. Warming temperatures also boost their reproductive and biting rates, lengthen their breeding season, and accelerate the maturation rate of the malaria pathogen. [2][3]

In a different scenario, outbreaks of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which are caused by exposure to urine and feces from deer mice, may change as rainfall patterns change in the Southwest by affecting the growth of pine nuts on which the mice feed. [4]

Food-borne and water-borne diseases

Depending on the type of food-borne illness, for every degree centigrade rise in temperature, results showed 2.5–6% relative increase in the risk of food-borne illness. [1]

  • An analysis of 548 gastrointestinal outbreaks that occurred in the United States between 1948 and 1994 showed that 68 percent of cases were preceded by very heavy rainfall. [2]
  • Increased frequency of intense extreme weather events can cause flooding of water and sewage treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne disease. [3]
  • Diarrheal diseases have also been found to occur more frequently in conjunction with both unusually high and low precipitation.[4, 5]

Currently, 3 million children a year die from starvation, half of all deaths to children, so hunger is already a huge problem across the world. One of every nine people on earth does not have enough food to live a healthy lifestyle. [1] In the U.S., according to the USDA, 14 % of household are food insecure, by 2012 data.[2]  While the Western hemisphere and Australia have produced more than enough food, the remainder of the world has fallen far short. [3, 4]

We initially thought that higher CO2 levels would be beneficial to crops but research is refuting this. Studies with wheat, rice, maize and soybeans show that protein levels are lowered 6-8 % when they are grown in higher CO2 levels. Zinc and iron levels fall also, and 2 billion people in the world already suffer from deficiencies of both of these. The resulting increase in carbohydrate in the crops could increase the rate of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and stroke that currently afflicts many in developed countries due to high levels of obesity. The decreases in nutrition will obviously affect the developing countries, leading to more malnutrition.[4]

With corn, for every day during the growing season that temperatures go above 29° C (84° F), maize yields decline by 0.7%. By the end of the century, U.S. maize yields could fall by one-third from heat stress alone. [5]

For wheat, a 1° Celsius increase (1.8° Fahrenheit) in projected mean temperature was found to decrease wheat yields by nearly 21 percent. [6]

Climate change is expected to lower grain yields and raise crop prices across the developing world, leading to a 20-percent rise in child malnutrition by 2050. [7]

Ocean acidification is also impacting food supplies as it decreases fish populations. More than 3.5 billion people, over one-third of the world, rely on the ocean for the primary source of food. [13] Meanwhile, big fish populations have fallen 90 % since 1950, due to many factors including overfishing. [14] And now we also have pollution, both chemical and silt, from land based sources is destroying spawning grounds and inshore species. [15] 

Weather-Related Morbidity and Mortality

Because warmer air carries more moisture, global warming leads to more weather-related disasters – hurricanes, floods - while the temperature increases lead to more drought. These disasters have been increasing over the past few decades. Since 1990, natural disasters have affected about 217 million people every year. For a disaster to be entered into the database, at least one of the following criteria must be fulfilled: [1,2,3]

  • Ten (10) or more people reported killed.
  • Hundred (100) or more people reported affected.
  • Declaration of a state of emergency.
  • Call for international assistance. [4]

Extreme weather kills 2,000 in the U.S. each year according to the CDC; heat contributes to nearly one-third of those deaths, besides the increase is disease, damage to crops, etc. previously mentioned. [5]

Every year, disasters result in over 60,000 deaths worldwide, mainly in developing countries, although during the heatwave of summer 2003 in Europe, more than 70,000 excess deaths in Europe alone were recorded. [6] In certain regions of the world, drought contributes to the mass migration of people fleeing conditions where sustaining livelihoods is no longer possible. [7]

The new name of “climate refugees” are people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming. The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from wars and other conflicts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, and 51 million in 2013. Scientists predict this number will rise to 50-200,000,000 in 2050. [8]

Refugees and Internally Displaced People’s (IDPs) are extremely vulnerable to human rights abuses, particularly the lack or denial of physical and mental health care. [9,10] Needless to say, any employment, self-improvement, and contributions to society are at least put on hold if not lost while in refugee status.

4 million persons were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.10-20 million persons in Pakistan were displaced by flooding in 2010. [11]

Sea level rise, drought/desertification, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis (geophysical, not climate related), all cause mass migration; the first two occurring slowly with little hope of returning home; the latter three tend to be quick, exoduses of sorts, with the possibility of returning home. [12]

Human developmental & maternal fetal effects

The severe weather, lack of food or water, population migration, food contamination, and diseases usually affect the fetuses, children, and pregnant women disproportionately. Climate change will increase the risk of infant and maternal mortality, birth complications, and will worsen reproductive health, especially in tropical, developing countries, the countries already affected most by climate change. Thus, climate change will have a substantial impact on the health and survival of the next generation among these already challenged populations. [1]

For fetuses, particulate matter in the air from the burning of fossil fuels increases SIDS deaths, IUGR (intrauterine growth retardation), and premature birth rates.[2] These effects are directly proportional to the amount of particulate matter in the air; the higher the levels, the higher the numbers for all of these conditions.

Each year, approximately half a  million women worldwide die as a result of complications during pregnancy, childbirth, and the six weeks following delivery. Keep in mind that most maternal deaths are avoidable, and 99% of all maternal deaths related to childbearing or giving birth occur in developing countries. [3]

Mental Health and Stress-Related Disorders

Mental health problems increase following disasters, both among those with no history of mental health problems and those with preexisting conditions – a phenomenon known as “common reactions to abnormal events.” [1]

In addition:

  • Heat waves contribute to more alcohol and substance abuse. [2]
  • Just an increase of 1 degree F (0.5 C) seems to increase the risk of violent behavior, especially in warm climates and the inner city. [3]
  • Research demonstrated high levels of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among people affected by Hurricane Katrina, [4] and similar observations have followed floods [5,6] and heat waves. [7] Some evidence suggests wildfires have similar effects. [8]
  • Some patients with mental illness are especially susceptible to heat. [9] Suicide rates vary with weather, [10] rising with high temperatures, suggesting a potential climate impact. [11,12,13]
  • Some medications used to treat schizophrenia may interfere with temperature regulation or even directly cause hyperthermia, increasing risk with extreme temperature events. [14]
  • Climatic changes will make people more susceptible to social and psychological stresses. Those that are already more vulnerable, i.e., the poorest communities, countries and peoples, are also the ones with the least access to services to help address those stresses.
  • Climate impacts on mental health include trauma, shock, anxiety, depression, grief, PTSD, relationship strain, substance abuse, and a sense of loss and lack of control.
  • Social impacts of climate include loss of community cohesion, loss of sense of belonging, increased violence and crime, increased social instability and increased interpersonal aggression and domestic violence. [15, 16]
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Introductions and Agenda
(from beginning)

Health Impacts Overview

Fetal & Maternal Impacts

Nutrition Impacts

Air Quality

Health Benefits

Next Steps

  • Dr. Robert Byron
  • Dr. Lori Byron
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Audio Outline
To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Introductions and Agenda
(from beginning)

Health Impacts Overview

Fetal & Maternal Impacts

Nutrition Impacts

Air Quality

Health Benefits

Next Steps

  • Dr. Robert Byron
  • Dr. Lori Byron
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