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Doctors Warn That Climate Change Makes People Sick

Medical associations join forces to sound the alarm on climate change and human health

Commuters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam use makeshift face masks to protect them from smog. Doctors are warning that climate change will affect human health, in part by increasing air pollution. (pcruciatti/iStock)
smithsonian.com

A changing climate is hazardous to the planet’s health—shrinking polar ice caps, eroding beaches, bleaching corals and more. But it turns out that climate change also affects human health, and as the planet changes, people are expected to get sicker. Now, reports Mary Brophy Marcus for CBS News, medical societies have teamed up behind the message that climate change hurts human health—and that its effects are already making people sick.

The American College of Physicians, National Medical Association, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Academy of Pediatrics and others have formed a kind of medical 'super group' they call the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

The group writes that its mission is to “inform the public and policymakers about the harmful health effects of climate change on Americans, as well as about the immediate and long-term health benefits associated with decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.” Marcus reports that more than half of American doctors are part of at least one of the participating groups.

Their message is simple and sobering: Climate change hurts humans. And in a newly released report, they lay out the evidence. Not only are people already getting sick because of a changing climate, the group writes, but some groups like pregnant people, the elderly, children, student athletes, poor people and those with chronic illnesses are particularly at risk. And unless the world takes concerted action, they warn, “those harms to our health are going to get much worse.”

So what are the specific threats? One is extreme heat, which can lead to dehydration and heat stroke. Another, air pollution, increases allergies and asthma attacks and respiratory infections. As Smithsonian.com reported last week, a recent World Health Organization report shows that 570,000 children every year die due to respiratory infections that can be linked to air pollution.

There are less expected effects, too. The consortium says that the increasing weather extremes brought on by a changing climate can lead to downpours that then contaminate food and water. And as extreme weather events get more severe, they warn, so will mental health problems among those who are vulnerable to natural disasters.

It’s not the first time experts have warned that climate change and human health are linked. Last year, for example, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a report that echoes many of the consortium’s concerns. But messengers matter, and perhaps the fact that such an overwhelming number of U.S. physicians have joined forces to sound the alarm on climate change will make a larger impact.

Either way, research on how a changing climate affects humans is ongoing. And given how quickly temperatures on the surface of the ocean and ashore are heating up, the time to address these issues is now.

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