Summer 2014

Just Warming Up

Climate change is already affecting human health—and it’s early yet

Previous Next

Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Melting glaciers and rising sea levels are just the start of the trouble; climate change is going to be bad for your health, too. That’s one of the many hard findings contained in the National Climate Assessment Report released in May. It was based on the work of more than 300 experts and reviewed by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Human health effects linked to a generally warmer climate include elevated risks of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, in addition to the innumerable deaths and injuries brought on by extreme weather. And this dire talk is something more than conjecture. These projected impacts “are happening now,” one of the lead authors of the report told the Boston Globe.

Take the case of allergies. Allergens become more active in warmer air. Carbon dioxide levels also tend to rise, heightening pollen counts and making it harder for asthma sufferers to breathe. The number of Americans with asthma rose enough between 2001 and 2010 to challenge the resources of the U.S. health-care system, according to the report.

Jeffrey Griffiths, professor of public health and community medicine, and an expert on the relationship between stomach viruses and summer heat whose research was cited in the report, isn’t much impressed with the hedged language of the findings. “I think this report is understated, because the wealth of information known about health effects has really snowballed in the last few years,” he told the Globe. “Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases are going through the roof. People’s predictions about how extensive Lyme disease would be are really low compared to what we’re actually seeing.”

Children, the elderly, impoverished populations and communities of color are apt to be most acutely affected by a degraded natural environment. Air quality is one example. “For someone on the edge, the increasing air pollution could be enough to put them into an asthma attack, or if they have emphysema, it might be enough to hospitalize them, reduce their lung function, and then the chance for infections becomes more common,” Griffiths explained. Rates of heart attack and stroke have indeed risen historically after spikes in air pollution .

Griffiths has his eye on a deeper history. “Parasites need a certain temperature to live in a mosquito,” he told the Globe reporter. “There was malaria in Boston until 1900, so we certainly have the right kind of mosquitoes, and if we have a lot more and one gets here carrying the right kind of parasite, we could see things like malaria transmission again.”

Top Stories

The Greater Good

Prompted by a new curricular requirement, more medical students than ever are volunteering in the community

The Boss Who Barked

He could be brusque and opinionated. But however he carried himself, Tufts professor Louis Weinstein ranked as a founding father of the field of infectious diseases

Father, Brother, Son

Tufts Medical School has touched three generations of this writer’s family

Editor's Picks

A Digital Version of You

Geneticist J. Craig Venter says synthetic biology and big data will revolutionize our understanding of aging

TB on the Comeback Trail

Microbiologist works to decipher the defenses of the centuries-old bacteria

Antidepressants and Early Birth

Pregnant women and their doctors should carefully consider potential effects of medication, study finds

The First Spark

Targeted philanthropy supports early stages of promising research into health challenges

Tell Me More

Because interviewing patients effectively is such a precious skill in medicine, Tufts has redoubled its emphasis on teaching students how to do it right

Lessons from Above

Psychiatrist Ronald Pies culls the wisdom of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism for advice in coping with life’s vicissitudes