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Changing Extremes and Human Health

New paper explores complex connections between climate change, extreme events, and human health

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Climate change has altered the frequency, intensity, and geographic distribution of some types of extreme events, and more changes are expected in the future. As a result, the risks of exposure to a range of human health and socioeconomic impacts are also changing.

A new paper in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association (JA&WMA) by researchers from NCEI, the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites–North Carolina (CICS-NC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Florida State University explores the complex interconnections between extreme events and human health and highlights ways that research into these connections can help build resilience.

The publication of the paper, “Changes in extreme events and the potential impacts on human health,” brings the work of researchers studying climate impacts on human health to a wider audience. JA&WMA is one of the oldest and continuously published technical environmental journals worldwide. Its primary audience is professionals in technical and engineering fields who work in air pollution control and waste management. Emphasizing climate research within their lexicon of knowledge could help lessen impacts of major events, according to the authors.

“Engineers and others in the environmental technology community can help design equipment and structures that can save lives and reduce the impacts that will occur with changes in the intensity and frequency of extreme events,” says Jesse Bell of CICS-NC, lead author. “The applications are potentially endless, including better-designed waste management facilities, improved air quality monitoring, and optimization of water treatment facilities.”

Health Impacts: Immediate and Long-Term

The paper focuses on types of extreme events for which changes have already been linked to climate change, including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, dust storms, flooding rains, hurricanes, coastal flooding, and storm surge. Many of these events have obvious, immediate health impacts, but many other repercussions are less obvious or occur over longer periods.

“Understanding the observed changes to date and expectations of future extreme event risk are critical in developing public health systems resilient to extremes,” the authors write.

For example, increases in the frequency or severity of heat waves pose a clear threat to health, but warmer temperatures can also lead to more ground-level ozone pollution and increases in airborne allergens.  

Extreme events can also result in cascading impacts, with significant effects on human health. For example, in 2003 a heat-related electricity blackout in the northeastern United States led to failures of emergency generators in hospitals, untreated sewage, and food contamination from losses of refrigeration, resulting in additional deaths and illnesses in New York City.

Climate and Health Knowledge Gaps

The paper also explores the ways that climate scientists are using techniques from disease epidemiology to identify how climate change is altering the likelihood and severity of various types of extreme events. The authors also identify important gaps in knowledge about the health impacts of extreme events and how those health impacts may change in the future.  

The authors conclude that “some of the associations between extreme events and health are already understood and the linkages are established. However, many opportunities exist for exploring additional linkages and pathways because of the variety of ways that these events can affect human health outcomes.” They also note that incorporating this information into planning efforts can help improve preparedness and reduce impacts.

More information on the health impacts of climate change is outlined in the 2016 U.S. Global Change Research Program report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.”