Asthma, ticks and heatstroke: Here’s what climate change could mean for your health
Sure, climate change means average temperatures are getting higher and sea levels are rising. But here are some repercussions that hit closer to home, affecting public health.
In St. Louis especially, those concerns include intensified pollen counts, more frequent stretches of extreme heat and worse tick seasons. All are detailed in the National Climate Assessment, a compilation of research published by the federal government last year. Environmental organizations shined a spotlight on the report Wednesday at a press conference in St. Louis.
Air quality and asthma
One in ten residents of the St. Louis metro region has been diagnosed with asthma, according to the state health department. The rate is significantly higher among African Americans, particularly children.
At her practice in north St. Louis City, Dr. Alison Nash said asthma is the number one diagnosis among her patients.
“Every day, maybe a third of the patients we see that day have asthma,” said Nash, who also appeared in an episode of St. Louis Public Radio’s podcast "We Live Here".
Because the severity of a patient’s asthma is frequently linked to air quality, Nash said climate change is making the situation in St. Louis worse.
“We have more molds, we have more dust, we have drier and hotter weather, particularly in the Midwest. Those are all triggers,” Nash said. Urban areas, she said, also tend to have a higher prevalence of asthma because of emissions from automobiles and factories.
Allergies to pollen can exacerbate asthma, and Nash said she’s noticed a longer ragweed season in St. Louis as well.
Hotter days, longer summers
Since 1900, temperatures in the Midwest have risen by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit on average. That may not seem like much, so here’s another way to look at it: The number of “extremely hot” days in a year (read—95 degrees or more) could increase by 20 or more in the St. Louis region by the middle of this century, according to the National Climate Assessment.
Extreme heat is especially dangerous for seniors, young children and people with pre-existing conditions. Shontae Fluelen-Hays of the St. Louis Department of Health said that people who cannot afford air conditioning or high cooling bills, outdoor workers, and people drinking alcohol (during a hot day at a Cardinal’s game, for example) are also at a higher risk.
Nineteen people died of heatstroke in St. Louis during a severe, month-long heat wave in 2012, sparking the creation of city health department’s Severe Weather Public Health Protection program, which Fluelen-Hays directs.
“I believe that in St. Louis, we’re resilient,” Fluelen-Hays said. “Long-term, those additional 20 days will not be difficult for us to manage.”
Fluelen-Hays cited the city’s Sustainability Plan released in 2013, which includes strategies to reduce environment-related concerns for public health. Information and resources about how to manage the heat and other severe weather events should be readily available to residents, she added.
Ticks, Flies and Mosquitos
In the Northeast and Upper Midwest, deer tick populations are kept in check when minimum winter temperatures stay below 19-degrees. As winters get warmer and springs get wetter, studies cited in the National Climate Assessment predicted that tick colonies will become more established in states like Missouri—carrying with them a greater risk of Lyme’s and other diseases.
During a press conference Wednesday, members of the Eastern Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club highlighted insect-borne diseases to call for a reduction in carbon emissions.
One organizer, Michael Berg, detailed his own experience with Lyme's disease.
"You feel weak for a day or so, and then you get these bulls-eye spots, and they spread," said Berg, who contracted the disease during a trip to the southeast.
The treatment for Lyme's is only fully effective if it's diagnosed early. The CDC counts about 30,000 cases a year, but believes the actual number likely is much higher.
“We’ve seen an earlier emergency of ticks and mosquitos by at least a month,” said Brian Nauert, the owner of a pest management company called Bugs by Brian. “Our phone has been ringing off the hook.”
For more health and science news from St. Louis, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.