The topic of climate change is in the news daily, notably the pressures we face from an increase in extreme weather events. Lately we’ve been affected by smoke-tinged air, carried from Canada by migrating winds as wildfires consume huge swaths of boreal forestland. Never in recorded history have they burned so intensely for so long, driven by drought and record temperatures, all the while threatening nearby communities and water sources (bit.ly/USGS_fires_and_climate).
In recent weeks, many Islanders reported the smell of outdoor smoke. For some, the scent might have been reminiscent of pleasant family gatherings around a campfire, rather than a harbinger of dangerous pathogens. Breathing tainted air can create or exacerbate health conditions for those who are vulnerable. Dr. Kari Nadeau, a professor at Harvard in the School of Public Health, and chair of the Environmental Health Department, said, “Most likely, wildfire smoke is much more toxic than a cigarette.” (bit.ly/ABC_Nadeau).
What’s more unsettling is that we may need to learn to live with it. Existing fires may continue burning until dampened by seasonal shifts, and may reoccur next year with similar vigor if conditions are right.
Fortunately, there is a simple tool we can use to plan our outdoor activities in order to safeguard our health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed an air quality standard that measures levels of ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. These standards are available on a website, Air Now, airnow.gov/aqi, which is updated hourly. Air Now suggests we use its information as we would a weather forecast, referring to it when we are planning outdoor activities, to reduce the amount of air pollution breathed. Simply type your zip code into a box in the upper right corner of the webpage to view local conditions. Your reading is displayed as a color-coded button of green, yellow, orange, or red. Click on the button for a detailed barometer, then scroll down the page to learn about other site features, such as its wildfire map. Fortunately, Dukes County has mostly been in the green zone this summer, occasionally straying into the yellow. This is not true of other locations, such as New York City, often in the red, and featured by newsreels displaying murky, orange-hued air resembling a cinematic effect. Such high levels of airborne pollutants pose a threat to anyone who inhales them.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health reports that pollution was responsible for 9 million premature deaths in 2019, making it the world’s largest environmental risk factor (bit.ly/Lancet_PollutionAndHealth). Older adults and children, and people with heart or lung disease, are at greater risk from exposure to particle pollution. Exposure can lead to various forms of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, reproductive problems, and hormonal imbalances, among other medical conditions. When the air quality is poor, it is advised that we wear a mask while outdoors, and reschedule outdoor activities that require exertion. Some early evidence supports the use of indoor air purifiers. According to research from the University of California, Berkeley, homes that combined air filter use with keeping doors and windows shut reduced particulate matter by half (bit.ly/NPR_WildfireSmoke).
The effects of climate change are more than just the air we breathe. As temperatures rise, so does the spread of infectious diseases like malaria, the Zika virus, and tick-borne illness. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and heat waves can result in physical injury, loss of life, displacement, and disruption of essential services. Failure of sanitation systems can lead to waterborne disease like cholera and typhoid fever, straining our healthcare systems and increasing our economic burden.
Sadly, this affects the overall mental health of our nation, with swelling numbers of people beset by anxiety or grief, struggling to adjust to disruptions in their lives or irreparable losses. Even those who are not directly affected may suffer from the weight of uncertainty — if, or when, their lives might be altered.
Addressing the link between climate change and public health requires urgent, collective action at local, national, and international levels. To protect the public’s health, we must adapt by improving healthcare infrastructures, strengthening early-warning systems, and enhancing community resilience. Collaboration between public health agencies, policymakers, researchers, and communities is essential as we develop comprehensive strategies that consider both climate change mitigation and public health priorities.
The Yale University Program on Climate Change says that 53 percent of individuals interviewed claimed to be concerned or alarmed about climate change in 2022, an increase from 38 percent in 2012. One way to combat our concerns while reducing our feelings of helplessness is to be proactive on an individual and local level. Collectively, it can make a difference. Here are some things you can do to help:
- Reduce your energy usage by turning off electronic devices when not in use, and by using LED light bulbs. This will lessen greenhouse gas emissions.
- Choose sustainable transportation: walking, cycling, or taking a bus. Purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle, and carpooling, will reduce transportation emissions.
- Consider shifting to renewable energy sources by installing solar panels, or supporting renewable energy programs in your area. Generating electricity from renewable sources, like the sun, reduces reliance on fossil fuels.
- Be mindful of your consumption. Purchasing only what is needed and choosing products with minimal packaging reduces waste. Recycle, and compost if possible.
- Plant trees, and support reforestation organizations. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, which can mitigate climate change. Carbon offset projects and reforestation programs help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Advocate for change by discussing climate change with others and supporting policies and initiatives that promote renewable energy, sustainable practices, and conservation.
- Join environmental groups. Raising awareness about the importance of climate action can have a significant impact.
- Support political candidates who prioritize climate action, and communicate your concerns to elected officials.