Is Global Warming Harmful to Health?
By Paul R. Epstein, Scientific American, August 2000
Today few scientists doubt the atmosphere is warming. Most also agree that the rate of heating is accelerating and that the consequences of this temperature change could become increasingly disruptive. Even high school students can reel off some projected outcomes: the oceans will warm, and glaciers will melt, causing sea levels to rise and salt water to inundate settlements along many low-lying coasts. Meanwhile the regions suitable for farming will shift. Weather patterns should also become more erratic and storms more severe. Yet less familiar effects could be equally detrimental. Notably, computer models predict that global warming, and other climate alterations it induces, will expand the incidence and distribution of many serious medical disorders. Disturbingly, these forecasts seem to be coming true. Heating of the atmosphere can influence health through several routes. Most directly, it can generate more, stronger and hotter heat waves, which will become especially treacherous if the evenings fail to bring cooling relief. Unfortunately, a lack of nighttime cooling seems to be in the cards; the atmosphere is heating unevenly and is showing the biggest rises at night, in winter and at latitudes higher than about 50 degrees. In some places, the number of deaths related to heat waves is projected to double by 2020. Prolonged heat can, moreover, enhance production of smog and the dispersal of allergens. Both effects have been linked to respiratory symptoms.
Global warming can also threaten human well-being profoundly, if somewhat less directly, by revising weather patterns particularly by pumping up the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts and by causing rapid swings in the weather. As the atmosphere has warmed over the past century, droughts in arid areas have persisted longer, and massive bursts of precipitation have become more common. Aside from causing death by drowning or starvation, these disasters promote by various means the emergence, resurgence and spread of infectious disease. That prospect is deeply troubling, because infectious illness is a genie that can be very hard to put back into its bottle. It may kill fewer people in one fell swoop than a raging flood or an extended drought, but once it takes root in a community, it often defies eradication and can invade other areas. The control issue looms largest in the developing world, where resources for prevention and treatment can be scarce. But the technologically advanced nations, too, can fall victim to surprise attacks as happened last year when the West Nile virus broke out for the first time in North America, killing seven New Yorkers. In these days of international commerce and travel, an infectious disorder that appears in one part of the world can quickly become a problem continents away if the disease-causing agent, or pathogen, finds itself in a hospitable environment. Floods and droughts associated with global climate change could undermine health in other ways as well. They could damage crops and make them vulnerable to infection and infestations by pests and choking weeds, thereby reducing food supplies and potentially contributing to malnutrition. And they could permanently or semipermanently displace entire populations in developing countries, leading to overcrowding and the diseases connected with it, such as tuberculosis.