Considering the Health Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change is often discussed in terms of aging infrastructure, energy reliability, and ecological concerns, but mounting evidence shows that its impacts on health and well-being are equally urgent and widespread. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 the direct damage costs to global health will be $2-4 billion USD per year. A recent report, Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change,” published by the ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association (APA), discusses the rising impact that climate change will have on mental, physical, and community health. The report offers a compilation of existing research and expert analysis, and describes the increased risk of injury, illness, and deviations to daily routines that will occur as a result of climate change.

Marginalized communities will be most affected

According to the APA report, communities with fewer resources and access to information and services such as health care may be more vulnerable to the physical and psychological impacts that come with disruptions due to climate change. For example, disruptions to the food chain will greatly affect population groups in more isolated areas with poor access to food markets and grocery stores. Climate change will also affect the types of recreation and transportation options available to communities. The report indicates that,

“although people may compensate by exercising in indoor environments, reduced access to the restorative potential of outdoor environments may have an indirect health impact by increasing stress.”

It’s clear that resiliency initiatives addressing infrastructure change should also consider community health and equity concerns. Active Design strategies may offer some guidance. For example, designing and building sidewalks or walkable paths in communities that are built with permeable materials, are likely to increase physical activity and aid in water drainage in times of need. Similarly, features such as rooftop gardens provide a venue for people of all ages to engage in physical activity, have greater access to nutritious foods, and can act as water retention tools. By utilizing Active Design strategies that align with green infrastructure tools and techniques, communities can leverage resources to promote both health and resiliency, meeting a broad range of goals.

A role for health researchers

In the report “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change,” researchers from the National Institute of Health point out that there are significant gaps in our understanding of the impact of climate change on chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. Health researchers can play an important role not only in increasing the breadth of available research, but also in monitoring the effects of any infrastructure changes that are put into effect. For example, as more buildings are built with green rooftops or to provide greater amounts recycled water to residents, understanding the chronic and other health affects on residents will be key to increasing or decreasing these practices.

One study from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York made this connection between human and environmental health by looking at residents who moved into a LEED-certified building, the “Eltona.” As the affects of climate change have been shown to increase respiratory issues, this study focused on understanding the impact on asthma rates for those living in a green certified building. At the start of the study, researchers found that initially 56% of participants reported having asthma symptoms that lasted all day. Six months into the study, the percentage dropped to 17% and then to 0% at 18 months. As rates of asthma continue to increase with climate change, studies such at the one conducted at the Eltona can help illuminate connections between design choices and health impacts. Together, the work of medical professionals and the design and development sectors can build stronger communities that prevent illness and offer greater health protection against climate change.

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    Employing green infrastructure can meet multiple goals of improving resiliency and promoting health. Photo: NYC Department of Transportation.
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    Research showing decreases in asthma in residents of the Eltona, aided in linking design with green infrastructure and human health. Photo: Welcome2Melrose blog.
  • By 2030, the damage costs of climate change to global health is estimated to be $2-4 billion USD per year.

  • With increases in climate change, respiratory allergies may become more prevalent because of increased human exposure to pollen, molds, air pollution/toxins, and dust.