Climate change refers to the increase in air temperatures and changing weather patterns observed over the past several decades. The changing climate is impacting the health of people around the world in a myriad of ways.
What causes climate change?
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are created by burning fuel, livestock farming, destruction of forests, plastic production, and other sources. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing overall increased temperatures as well as changing weather patterns.
Climate vs. Weather
|Weather (what you experience)||Climate (long-term patterns)|
|A hot day in July.||Longer, hotter summers.|
|No rain all week.||Year-long drought and water shortages.|
|Snow in May.||Changing seasonal patterns.|
Extreme hot and cold temperatures, air pollution, ecosystem changes, and extreme weather events like storms and wildfires are increasingly common and can be harmful to your health.
What are the health effects of climate change?
Climate change contributes to the risk of:
- Stroke and heart attacks
- Asthma and allergies
- Mental health conditions
- Heat-related illnesses
- Food-borne illnesses
- Malnutrition due to food supply problems
- Insect-borne diseases like Lyme and West Nile
- Missed work and school due to extreme weather events
- Injuries from extreme weather events, flooding, and property damage
Who is most at risk from the effects of climate change?
- Children are less able to regulate their body temperature, making them more susceptible to illnesses associated with extreme heat and cold. Climate change is increasing the number of poor air quality days, which in turn increases the risk of asthma attacks in children. Asthma and extreme weather events both contribute to an increase in the number of missed days of school. An estimated 88% of illness from climate change occurs in children under 5 years old.
- Pregnant people who experience climate-associated extreme heat and air pollution are at increased risk of stillbirth, preterm delivery, and having infants who are low birth weight. Air pollutants can cross the placenta and contribute to gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. Pregnant people of color and those with asthma are most at risk from the impacts of climate change.
- People who work or exercise outside experience greater exposures to air pollutants, extreme temperature, insect-borne illnesses, and other climate change effects.
- People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and diseases of the heart, lung, and brain are more likely to be impacted by climate-associated air pollution, extreme temperatures, and stress. Some medications used to treat these illnesses increase sensitivity to heat.
- Low-income and communities of color are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses that worsen the impacts of climate change. Low-income communities are less likely to have access to air conditioning and heat, leading to exposure to extreme temperatures. These populations tend to live in neighborhoods that have substandard housing and less protection from extreme weather events like hurricanes and flooding.
How can I protect myself and my family from the health impacts of climate change?
- Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific health concerns and climate change.
- Monitor real-time air quality using apps like AirNow.
- Limit time outdoors if the air quality is poor.
- Protect yourself from insect bites.
- Stay hydrated and seek shade during hot weather months.
- Talk to your doctor to find out if there’s a need to adjust your medications.
- Develop an emergency plan for extreme weather events at www.ready.gov.
- Choose locally grown food and eat less meat.
- Plant trees and support local parks and green spaces.
- Encourage laws that reduce carbon emissions.
- Choose companies that use energy from the wind and sun.
- Carpool, take public transportation, walk, or bike.
- Bring reusable bags when you shop and reduce the use of plastics.
- Support local climate and health preparedness and programs.
How we’re studying climate change at Mount Sinai
From extreme temperature events to structural racism
Dr. Perry Sheffield is a board-certified pediatrician who studies the effects of climate change and associated extreme temperatures and weather events on human health, specifically children and workers. A recent paper by Dr. Sheffield and a team of researchers examined health inequities among children affected by both climate change and structural racism. This report details how climate injustice, which perpetuates inequities in exposure to air pollution, traffic, and poor infrastructure, contributes to adverse child health outcomes. This work aimed to provide clinicians with tools to promote healthy behaviors in the clinic, become advocates for their patients, and use their position to address existing structural issues.
Dr. Sheffield’s research has also shown that while very young children are most at risk for heat-related illness, older children and adolescents are also adversely impacted.
Dr. Sheffield is also studying the adverse impacts of extreme weather events on communities, finding that toxic exposures that results from Hurricane Harvey disproportionately affected low-socioeconomic status (SES) communities. This study, conducted with Bian Liu, PhD, and other collaborators, found that while all toxic sites in Houston were equally vulnerable to flooding, toxic releases were more common in low-SES communities. This work is vital to understanding how climate change-related weather events exacerbate existing health inequities in low-SES communities.
In 2022, together with Dr. Emily Senay, Dr. Sheffield serves as course director for the annual Clinical Climate Change Conference hosted by the Institute for Exposomic Research. Founded by Dr. Senay in 2019, it is now in its 4th year. This annual CME event is aimed at a broad audience of allied health professionals seeking to understand the health effects of the climate crisis and improve patient outcomes. It aims to provide learners with up-to-date, clinically relevant evidence-based information.
Harnessing satellite data to go back in time
Dr. Allan Just studies children’s environmental health, environmental epigenomics, endocrine-disruptors, and air pollution. Using satellite data, he is able to recreate historical temperature and air pollutant exposures to identify climate-related exposures that occurred during pregnancy, early childhood, and other vulnerable periods.
Together with Dr. Itai Kloog and Dr. Maayan Yitshak-Sade, Dr. Just recently published a study that found associations between exposures to heat and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and lower birth weight. Pregnant people were most vulnerable during early and late pregnancy. Climate change is causing higher daily temperatures and longer heat waves; understanding the impacts is essential for adapting programs and policies that lead to better pregnancy outcomes.
Dr. Just also contributed to a study that found that an association between heat and elevated ischemic stroke risk, with hypertension increasing vulnerability to hemorrhagic stroke associated with changes in temperature. As heat waves and extreme weather events become more common due to climate change, this work is vital to protect vulnerable populations at risk of stroke.