Climate change is worsening health and disparities: What can be done? – USA TODAY

Experts have called climate change the “greatest global threat to health.” Extreme heat and pollution are linked to many conditions including asthma and heart disease — and heat kills more people than hurricanes or floods each year.
New report: Researchers across the globe collaborate to study climate and health in an annual report, the Lancet medical journals’ “countdown” on health and climate change. In this year’s U.S. portion of the report, released Tuesday, scientists break down research on the health impacts of a warming climate and outline policy recommendations, focusing on health equity.
Why this matters: Experts have long called for health and equity to be central to the climate change fight. For example, heart disease can be caused by particulate matter pollution, according to the American Heart Association, and long-term exposure to these microscopic, inhalable pollutants causes asthma in children, the American Thoracic Society says. 
Who is most vulnerable: Communities of color, which are often home to disproportionate fossil fuel infrastructure; frontline or coastal communities; older adults; children and infants; outdoor laborers; people with underlying health conditions; and those who are pregnant. 
“Health is at the mercy of our global fossil fuel addiction,” said Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency medicine physician and Yerby Fellow at the Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, in a media briefing on the findings.
Here are highlights from the report and what scientists are calling for.
Air pollution from fossil fuel burning has been found to harm every organ in the body, research shows. According to data from the report, particulate matter caused 32,000 deaths across the U.S. in 2020, and 37% of those were “directly related to fossil fuels,” the authors wrote, noting those could be underestimates.
Air pollution needs to be seen as a risk factor for poor health that “can be modified” to improve heart and lung health, the authors suggest.
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The problems don’t impact U.S. communities equally, and people of color are more likely to experience harmful pollution and heat. That’s because fossil fuel infrastructure is disproportionately located in areas where Black, Indigenous and other people of color live. These residents are then more exposed to extreme heat and more impacted by heat-related illness and death.
Co-author Natasha DeJarnett called the disproportionate exposures and effects an “inequitable burden.”
Black, Asian, Latino and low-income communities disproportionately have higher levels of particulate matter than white and richer communities. The disparities in these concentrations “may be worse than previously estimated,” she and the other researchers wrote.
“Those groups are those that contribute least to this crisis but they bear the heaviest burden,” said DeJarnett, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville’s Envirome Institute, during the briefing.
Climate threats amplify inequities due to structural racism and the intersecting risks that come with it. While more than 40% of the U.S. population lived in cities where air pollution levels exceeded safe standards, areas of the country with the largest projected increases in heat-related deaths are 40% more likely to be Black communities.
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Certain age groups are also more at risk. Along with children, older adults are most vulnerable to heat. Between 2017 and last year, heat-related deaths among people over 65 jumped 74% from 2000-2004, the report found.
The researchers multiplied the number of heatwave days by the infant population to find that babies under 1 experienced an average of 12 million more days of heatwaves between 2012 and 2021 compared to 1986 to 2005.
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Central to the scientists’ policy recommendations is an equitable clean-energy transition.
The researchers said investments in a zero-emission energy sector and transportation system that “equitably benefits health” are keys to improving health, especially for marginalized and frontline communities.
The authors implored stopping developments in new fossil fuel infrastructure and phasing out oil and gas subsidies “as rapidly as possible.”
“There’s an enormous opportunity and responsibility for us in the health profession to again sound the alarm and say that we have to do things differently,” Salas said.
A path forward needs to instead focus on climate-resilient adaptations and making sure subsidies for clean energy are available to communities of color and those of low income, as well as policies that focus on evidence-based practices for cleaner air, such as expanding tree cover in neighborhoods lacking green space.
“Policy implementation can prioritize health and equity by focusing on clean energy transition in the most impacted communities.”
Reach Nada Hassanein at [email protected] or on Twitter @nhassanein_.
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