Climate change is a public health issue

Written by John Hickey, Missouri Chapter Director, Sierra Club

In April 2016, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released “The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States.” This report pointed out that climate change was not just a distant threat to human health, nor just an issue in less-developed countries that lack the resources to adapt to climate change. Instead, climate change is impacting human health in the United States right now. The public health community in the St. Louis area should heed this warning.

What is the scale of the impacts, you ask?  Let’s look at some of the best research on three different human health impacts related to climate change.

Coal-fired power plants are not only the biggest source of the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing climate change. These power plants also emit sulfur dioxide and small particles that cause stroke, heart attack, and asthma. The Clean Air Task Force (CATF) estimates that air pollution from Missouri-based coal plants caused 315 premature deaths in 2010. The plant responsible for the most deaths, the Labadie plant in metro St. Louis, kills 78 people per year and is operated by Ameren.

Another way that climate change impacts the local public health is through rising temperatures. The April 2016 study cited above includes an estimate that the St. Louis area will suffer 136 additional deaths per year from heat waves by 2030, compared to a 1990 baseline. This figure represents a net of the additional heat deaths in the summer, minus the fewer cold-related deaths in the winter.

Vector-borne illnesses will also increase in our area, due to longer active seasons for mosquitoes and ticks, the expansion of new mosquito species into our area, and travelers to tropical countries coming back to our area after being infected. Tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme’s disease, erlichiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted fever are of particular concern in Missouri. There were 36,307 reported cases of Lyme’s disease in the United States in 2013, and that number is expected to climb as temperatures increase.

What can the public health community do?  Let me share a few examples.

Public health organizations can speak out on key public policy decisions. For example, a number of such groups signed onto an Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court in support of the Clean Power Plan, the EPA plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Signers included the American Public Health Association, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the American College of Preventive Medicine. Note that, according to a September 2014 report from the Harvard School of Public Health (“The Health Co-benefits of Carbon Standards”), implementation of the Clean Power Plan would reduce premature deaths in Missouri from air pollution from coal-fired power plants by 1,200 people over the 10 years of its implementation.

The U.S. healthcare industry is a top producer of greenhouse gases, according to a 2016 study by the Yale School of Medicine, due to its intensive energy use for light, heat, and energy intensive goods and services.  The U.S. healthcare industry generates more greenhouse gases than the entire economy of the United Kingdom, for example. Some local healthcare institutions have taken leadership in reducing their own role in carbon pollution. In April 2016, SSM Healthcare announced that it would divest its coal industry stocks. Ascension Health has reduced its energy use by 16.8 % between 2008 and 2015 by implementing energy efficiency programs. An additional benefit? Lower operating costs means  more money to invest in healthcare instead of utility bills!

Medical professionals are trusted messengers, so are effective spokespeople on these issues.  Public health professionals can partner with organizations like the Missouri Sierra Club on public policy campaigns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are many opportunities, from testifying at legislative committees in Jefferson City, to attending lobby visits with our Congress people in Washington D.C., to submitting op-eds and letters to the editor to local media.