Climate Change and Public Health

by Donald Clermont, MPH candidate ‘18

As Puerto Rico and Texas continue to recover from hurricanes Maria and Harvey, the public health effects of climate change are undeniable. Puerto Rico is still suffering from contaminated water supplies and damaged infrastructure and Houston medical practices are struggling to reopen.1 As U.S. communities experience higher temperatures and recover from increasingly frequent natural disasters, public health practitioners play a vital role in mitigating health effects of climate change.

Rising sea-levels and more frequent storms lead to increased flooding which causes a myriad of health issues, such as exposure to molds and chemicals and exacerbation of chronic conditions and mental health problems.2 While flooding is a growing concern for all coastal communities, more affluent cities such as Houston and Miami have more resources to deal with natural disasters and are pioneering successful drainage systems that increase flood-resistance. In contrast, poorer communities and nations may not have the means to undertake similar projects. “Climate change is going to affect people in poorer countries the most. For example, Bangladesh is at sea-level and very poor and they’re going to get swamped,” says Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine Doug Brugge, PhD, MS. This is also true for U.S. communities such as Puerto Rico, which was in an economic crisis at the time of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Rising temperatures also affect ecosystems and change the pattern of spread of infectious disease. “As temperatures change, habitats move from one location to another and infectious diseases that are spread by mosquitos may reach the southern United States that didn’t before,” says Brugge. Bacterial water contamination can also result from rising temperatures and the changing chemical composition of freshwater sources. It has been estimated that the drinking water reservoirs for 30 to 48 million Americans could be periodically contaminated by toxic algae.3 In Massachusetts, advisories for toxic cyanobacteria blooms have been issued for waters throughout the state, and this past summer several ponds in Cape Cod were closed due to contamination. According to Michael Celona of the Toxicology Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Massachusetts had 50% more of these blooms than the previous summer.4

As long as the U.S. remains the only country to disavow the Paris Climate Accord, chances of new and innovative federal policies to mitigate climate change seem grim. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to develop recommendations and sponsor local public health research in the context of climate change. This is important because state and local governments play a vital role in managing public health under current climate conditions and tailoring initiatives to the needs of their community. “Local initiatives can help with energy conservation, diminish fossil fuel use, and use more green energy,” says Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine Beth Rosenberg, ScD, MPH. “Nothing is happening at the federal level so the local and state levels are all the more important. It’s where things are going to happen.”

However, local initiatives also need to be coordinated with broader efforts. “When doing local work it is important to attempt to connect it to the larger national and international issues. Some ways to do this might include adding networking, education or advocacy that could have a broader impact by raising awareness and affecting public sentiment,” says Brugge.

With funding from the CDC, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has been working to monitor the public health effects of harmful algae blooms, address indoor air quality, and conduct heat stress vulnerability assessments throughout the state.5 Local academic institutions are also working to understand and mitigate climate change effects on public health. Tufts’ own Environmental Engineering Professor Steve Chapra led a group of researchers to develop an innovative modeling framework to predict climate change’s effect on cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms in the U.S. According to their model, the greatest increase in these harmful blooms will be in the Northeast region of the U.S.6 Speaking on the public health effects of climate change, Chapra says “The primary impact will be the increased occurrence of freshwater harmful algal blooms. This is due to the fact that the primary freshwater toxic algae, cyanobacteria or “bluegreen” algae, thrive at higher water temperatures. At various stages of their life cycles, these organisms produce neurotoxins and hepatotoxins that can cause illness and even death to mammals, including humans, that consume the contaminated water.”

Local government and non-government organizations must not only deal with climate-related public health issues, but address the root causes of climate change. In 2014, Tufts University Board of Trustees decided not to divest its endowment from fossil fuels due to cost. However, they did say that the issue should remain open for discussion. They have since established a Sustainability Fund, the income of which will be used for sustainability programming in academics and university operations.78 Given the current politics in the federal government, coordinated state and local initiatives hold a vital position in promoting clean energy and public health in a changing climate.

  1. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Medical-practices-still-recovering-from-Harvey-12312179.php
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6637e1.htm
  3. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.7b01498
  4. http://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20170811/barnstable-ponds-tested-for-toxic-algae-blooms
  5. http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/environmental-health/exposure-topics/public-health-implications-of-climate-change.html
  6. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.7b01498
  7. FAQs regarding possible divestment from fossil fuels/ recent divestment history
  8. http://now.tufts.edu/articles/tufts-launches-sustainability-fund

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