Extreme Weather Is Taking a Toll on Human Health

More than three in four people in the U.S. say they have experienced a severe weather event in the past five years, according to a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health. Of those respondents, 24% said they experienced health problems and 17% said they experienced […]

More than three in four people in the U.S. say they have experienced a severe weather event in the past five years, according to a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Of those respondents, 24% said they experienced health problems and 17% said they experienced serious financial issues after the extreme weather event. About 14% had to evacuate their homes. The survey results showed that these conditions were heightened for people of color.

Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor at the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University of Chicago, draws a direct link between these dangerous weather patterns and climate change.

“Thermal expansion that causes sea level rise, and how that impacts flooding and erosion is one major challenge,” Michaud told Direct Relief. “Broadly, heat waves, drought, and increased severity of storms are all major challenges with temperature rises.”

Heat

Heavy sweating, headache, dizziness, cramps, and a fast pulse are signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

It’s important to know the signs of heat-related illnesses as temperatures rise and weather conditions worsen, particularly as nearly a dozen major cities across the US broke heat records this week, with more than 25 million people across the Southern US under heat advisories. 

The southern U.S. is more susceptible to extreme heat.

Extreme heat, while a leading causes of weather-related deaths in the U.S., is one of many environmental changes that adversely affect health and worry environmentalists and healthcare providers.

Wildfires

Several parts of the country have experienced massive fires earlier in the year than expected.

Fires in Arizona have been burning for as long as two months on over 95,000 acres of land. More severe fires have occurred in New Mexico, which has experienced over 884,000 acres of burning land; Texas with over 447,000 acres; and Alaska at over 300,000 acres, according to the Fire, Weather and Avalanche Center.

Over the past two weeks, Direct Relief has sent more than $54,000 in medical support to counties affected by wildfires in the United States, including N95 masks, hygiene kits, insulin, antibiotics, and a solar power station.

Michael Crimmins, a professor and extension specialist in climate science at the University of Arizona, said the limited precipitation in the air throughout the winter has caused more arid conditions. The dry and windy weather has made it easy for large wildfires, like the Pipeline and Haywire tunnel fires near Flagstaff, Arizona, to spread quickly and are difficult for response teams to control.

“These fires are responding to weather patterns rather than creating them,” he said.

Wildfires in the Southwest region are common, but Crimmins said that these fires have sprouted earlier than usual and have spread faster. Their smoke is likely to be seen across the U.S. in later months, just as smoke from fires on the West Coast were seen in the American Midwest and Northeast in the past.

The greenhouse gasses emitted from these smoke clouds are harmful to groundwater, lakes, and breathable air. In turn, the harmful environmental conditions increase risk of chronic diseases like asthma, heart and lung disease, and obstructive pulmonary disease.

Many of the fires in the southwest were contained within rural areas. However, there’s still a great threat to the livelihoods of people who live nearby.

Blackouts

Across the country, experts say residents should expect rolling, or planned, blackouts from energy and utility companies who are trying to maintain power grids.

Michaud said the American West and Texas have historically been susceptible to blackouts. Now, larger regions of the Midwest, like Chicago and St. Louis, are “particularly vulnerable” to blackouts that are happening more frequently and for longer periods of time. 

“When it’s very hot, it’s natural for many to keep the air conditioning low, or even turn it down,” Michaud wrote in an email to Direct Relief. “The rise in extreme heat causes great strain to our power grid, which is aging and not always able to meet peak demand for electricity.  Moreover, air conditioning systems themselves emit greenhouse gases, which also contributes to the climate change issue.”

These planned outages pose serious health risks to seniors and people with chronic conditions who are more vulnerable to heat exhaustion. Those who require medications that need to be kept cool, like insulin, are also at risk when power is limited during extreme hot weather temperatures.

In 2021, Direct Relief launched the Power for Health initiative, with an initial commitment of $5 million to increase energy resiliency among U.S. nonprofit health organizations. The funding, which will be used to secure resilient energy sources, such as solar generation and backup battery systems, will allow health care providers to remain operational even during disaster-caused blackouts.

Even before Power for Health, Direct Relief had invested years and $10 million in solar and battery projects for the U.S. nonprofit safety net.

This post was originally published on Direct Relief.


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