During a July heatwave, Dr. Neelu Tummala treated a grandmother who was caring for her infant grandchild.
Flustered and late for her appointment, the woman explained that she didn't have air conditioning at her house, Tummala says. To keep her grandchild cool, the grandmother walked around inside of a train station until it closed because she feared the child could overheat.
“She's another face of the climate crisis,” says Tummala, who practices at George Washington University Hospital and wrote a recent article in Scientific American is titled "What Climate Change Does to the Human Body."
Images of water-flooded streets and towns engulfed in flames don’t show the invisible impact of climate change — a full-blown public health crisis.
Tummala writes the impact of greenhouse gasses on our climate are evident in an alarming pattern: July and September of 2019, as well as January and May of 2020, marked the hottest respective months on record. The 2010s were the hottest decade on record.
“These extended periods of heat exposure can compromise the body's ability to regulate temperature,” she says. “That can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death.”
Temperature extremes can also worsen chronic cardiovascular and respiratory conditions among others, she says.
Children start to feel the heat during the prenatal stage of life, resulting in premature birth rates and increased pregnancy complications, she says. Children’s bodies produce heat faster than adults, but kids can’t get rid of it as quickly because they sweat less.
Plus, children can’t easily communicate symptoms such as dizziness and nausea that could derive from heat exhaustion, she says.
Globally, many countries that contribute least to climate change could be most affected. For example, rural villages that rely on local water sources and agricultural land are greatly affected, she says.
Between 75 million to 250 million people on the continent of Africa could face increased water stress this year because of climate change, she says. And warming of 2 degrees Celsius would put over 50% of people on the continent at risk of undernourishment.
Another health threat brought on by climate change is waterborne illness. Flooding is associated with higher sea levels and intensified hurricanes — which are often fueled by climate change.
In the U.S., floods are making environments moister, she says, making mold more likely to grow in homes. Mold worsens allergy symptoms and can cause asthma attacks.
“The climate crisis is also an issue of climate justice,” she says. “And so people who live in cramped apartments or where the housing infrastructure does not allow adequate protection from moisture, they are definitely more susceptible to the health impacts of these waterborne illnesses.”
Beyond American people, dogs in the U.S. have felt the impacts of changing aquatic ecosystems. The warming of coastal waters is causing harmful algal blooms that were killing dogs that swam in these contaminated waters last year, Tummala says.
With wildfires blazing on the West Coast, Tummala says recent evidence shows the smoke made its way to her home city of Washington, D.C. Poor air quality is challenging because it affects so many parts of the body, she says: lung growth, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases such as asthma, increased risk of heart disease or stroke, premature birth rates and cognitive dysfunction.
“But one of the concerns with the climate crisis is because you can't see it, people tend to be less likely to act on it,” she says. “And that's why we haven't seen as much aggressive action on the climate crisis as it needs.”
All types of vector-borne diseases from insects are becoming more common every year in North America, she says.
Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease on the continent, depends on climate patterns, she says. The geographic range of tick disease vectors is expanding both west and south in the U.S. every year.
The question of climate change’s impact on mental health is a challenging one, she says. One of Tummala’s colleagues, a mother to 2-year-old daughter, shared the difficulty of deciding whether to let wildfire smoke in the child’s room by opening the window or keeping it shut on a hot 94-degree evening.
This anecdote displays the stress and anxiety people face when making these tough decisions, Tummala says. Heat has an impact on depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. And with the intensity of natural disasters increasing, she says many mental health providers are seeing more people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“One of the other things I think that's being increasingly talked about also is eco-anxiety,” she says. “People are very concerned about what does that mean for future generations? What does that mean for our planet? What does that mean for the future?”
To mitigate the impacts of climate change on health, Tummala reminds people to vote in November.
“Voting for people who prioritize green policy is really important,” she says. “The climate crisis is a public health crisis and it demands our collective climate action.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration of more than 400 news outlets committed to better coverage of the climate crisis. This Sept. 21-28 collaborative week focuses on the intersection of climate change and politics.
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This segment aired on September 23, 2020.