Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, Patrice Tomcik had never heard of Lyme disease — an infectious, flu-like illness transmitted by ticks.
But in the last few years, five of her friends have caught it, she's had to have her dog vaccinated and she regularly finds herself pulling ticks off her children. It can be disconcerting, she said, having to worry about an illness that she had never been exposed to in the past.
"It's getting warmer, so the season for ticks is lasting longer," said Tomcik, a field consultant with Moms Clean Air Force. "There are so many more of them, and they just don't die off. It's a big issue here in Pennsylvania, because we have so much wood. Our family has 29 acres of land out in the woods, and I'm picking ticks off my dog and my kids like I've never seen before."
Lyme disease isn't the only contagious illness that is venturing into new territories under a shifting climate. Across the country, physicians are noticing an influx of patients whose illnesses, they say, are directly or indirectly related to climate change. Now, 11 medical associations — representing around half the doctors and physicians in the country — are creating a group that intends to address the links between climate change and health risks.
"I view this as one of the largest environmental health crises of our time because of the many pathways in which climate affects us — be it from direct heat effects and heat waves in urban centers, ground-level smog, ozone red alert days, stagnant air masses and warmer temperatures, to some infectious diseases," said Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The group, called the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, intends to advocate for climate change and health awareness among the public and policymakers. Mona Sarfaty, director of the consortium, said its message is one of urgency: "that climate change is harming the health of Americans and that we have to act now."
"We wish to start that conversation and are eager to talk to everybody about it. We will be speaking to people in environmental organizations, we'll be speaking to members of Congress, we'll be sending reports and having conversations with other policymakers throughout the country," she added.
Specific risks to women's health
The consortium released a report outlining the connections between climatic shifts and health risks, pointing out that wildfires and air pollution are adding to cases of cardio-respiratory illnesses; heat events are affecting people in urban centers; infectious diseases are spreading in unusual geographic areas and times of the year; and extreme weather events are threatening psychiatric health.
According to the report, a quarter of Americans can name one way in which climate change is affecting their health. This is reflected in the experiences of physicians across the country. Many were present at the launch of the consortium and listed the ways they were noticing the trend among the patients who trickle into their offices.
For Robert Byron, clinical director and chief information officer of the Bighorn Valley Health Center in Montana, the biggest issue is wildfires. Montana's fire season has expanded by two months over the last century, and there's been an increase in the number of wildfires throughout the summer and early fall. Byron and his colleagues have had to caution patients with asthma and pulmonary disease not to venture outdoors too much.
"We've seen increases in the amount of medications they need to use, as well as increased likelihood of hospitalization because of flare-ups of their disease. This used to be the exception — now it's the rule," he said.
Samantha Ahdoot, a Virginia-based pediatrician with the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Environmental Health, has had patients coming in suffering from longer allergy seasons because of prolonged, warmer spring seasons. And Thomas Gellhaus, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pointed out that often women and marginalized communities experience the brunt of the repercussions of climate change.
"Women face some of the greatest risks from climate change over the course of their lives, and especially during pregnancy. In affected regions, climate change puts women at risk of disease, malnutrition, poor mental health, lack of reproductive control and even death," he explained, adding that exposure to toxic environmental agents during pregnancy can also lead to increased risks of birth defects and childhood cancer.
Members of the consortium plan to share their experiences and learnings far and wide — specifically with policymakers in Congress, who they feel need to be enlightened on these issues. Amid reports of massive budget cuts to U.S. EPA and plans to roll back auto efficiency standards, they made the trip to Capitol Hill to highlight some of the main points on their report.
"When the Clean Air Act was started and since that time in 1970, the EPA has been required to do a benefit-cost analysis of the CAA. The benefit to cost is about 30-to-1 — so when we talk about reversing some of these regulations, it's to our detriment," said Patz.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.