Hospitalizations, Deaths Due to Heat Likely to Increase Due to Climate Change

Mental health effects, respiratory illness and communicable diseases -- as well as food insecurity -- also expected to increase as the planet heats up
Temperature increases in Northwest will be “modest” over the next 100 years, but will still have a noticeable effect, and the number of heat-related deaths is likely to increase in coming decades.
 
Graphs showing the steady (if erratic) increase in temperature over the last few decades usually show the average annual temperature, which gives people a sense of the big picture but still doesn’t give a sense of what life will actually be like, said Kathie Dello, associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, at a brownbag lecture last week.
 
“We care a lot about seasonal temperatures,” Dello said, showing a graph that broke down average seasonal temperatures per year. While each season is projected to get warmer, summers will be particularly hot and dry in the Northwest. “We will see warming in all seasons.” Public health officials should anticipate and prepare for more heat-related hospitalizations, especially among seniors. 
 
Dello, along with Jeff Bethel, PhD, an epidemiologist with Oregon State University, presented the latest findings -- which the Institute is required by Oregon law to put out every biennium -- on the likely effects of climate change on human health.
 
Hotter summers will probably also mean wildfires and droughts will become more common, she said, which is likely to affect food prices and food security in the Northwest.
 
Precipitation changes are probably going to be indistinguishable from natural variability -- that is, the way temperatures have always fluctuated -- but climatologists' models have shown a decline in snow pack at certain altitudes, due to warmer winters, which will also probably contribute to drought.
 
Bethel said the number of communicable diseases -- like the West Nile virus -- may also increase. Wildfires will be worse, with 78 percent more area being burned, and respiratory illnesses will become more common due to air pollution and heat. 
 
Bethel also talked about the potential mental health effects of climate change. After Hurricane Katrina, 89 percent of people living in New Orleans were receiving some kind of mental health treatment, with 32 percent of people experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and 62 percent reporting suicidal thoughts, he said.
 
“Uncertainty of the future is taxing,” Bethel said.
As far as what public health departments can do to build resilience and mitigate the health effects of climate change, Bethel said health departments need to continue gathering information: “Broadly, we need more data.” Environmental monitoring needs to be matched against public health surveillance to determine links between environmental change and human health events, and in general, there should be an increase in region-level monitoring. 
 
Health departments should recognize that the health impacts of climate change will be diverse, with the worst effects hitting vulnerable populations such as people with chronic illnesses, children, seniors and outdoor workers with more exposure to environmental changes, particularly heat waves.
 
As an example of how researchers can connect health outcomes with climate change, Bethel mentioned a study his department had performed involving Oregon farmworkers and hospitalizations related to heat or sunburn. There does seem to have been a slight uptick in hospitalizations in the weeks between mid-July and mid-August, Bethel said, adding the caveat that it can be difficult to determine whether a summer hospitalization is directly due to heat or general poor health or working conditions. 
 
Dello also mentioned other efforts to prepare the public for climate change -- including communication efforts that won’t alarm the public, and outreach to the fishing industry about ocean acidification, changes in Ph levels of the ocean due to rising temperatures, which some climatologists predict will kill fish -- and closed his remarks by saying the institute’s research is available on the website, and a “climate change and health” mailing list has been created. 
 
Christen can be reached at [email protected].
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