Without a clean environment, we endanger the health of our vulnerable populations, such as the young, old or sick. I have dealt with these cases firsthand working as a clinician in North Carolina, treating many children and adults who have had recurrent asthma attacks even after being on multiple maintenance medications. I’ve ensured that landscapers and agricultural workers with heat-related illnesses had access to shade, cool water and air-conditioned facilities for rest breaks.
For many of these people, there was a clear environmental link. The public health connection is real. Having more people with environmentally exacerbated respiratory and cardiovascular conditions comes at a price: increased emergency room visits, increased hospital admissions and increased pharmaceutical expenditures. And we as members of society end up paying for this health care (whether directly through increased premiums or indirectly through other means).
North Carolinians understand climate change, and we know there have been a greater number of severe weather events over the last two decades. There is strong evidence demonstrating that the Atlantic Ocean has been warming year after year, which leads to more moisture in the air. Taking this moisture and mixing it with unstable air can lead to catastrophe.
We have lived through tornados and hurricanes. Do we want to have such events become a daily part of our lives? There is not only a monetary cost associated with dealing with the aftermath of such natural disasters, but also a human cost: a rise in infectious diseases associated with flooding (including E. coli and cholera, to name a few). I have clinically treated individuals for vector-borne diseases, many of which until recently had not been prevalent in the southeastern United States. Our health care providers are going to be seeing more and more of these types of cases in the future because of our warming regional climate.
The momentum continues to build worldwide for a clean environment. In December 2015 in Paris, 195 countries – including the U.S. – adopted a climate agreement that set forth a global action plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration has unfortunately decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Going back on this commitment now demonstrates to other developing countries that climate change is not a priority.
The U.S. has always been first when it comes to science, technology and innovation. Let us not forget our environmental successes of the past. Let us keep this momentum going for a cleaner planet today and tomorrow.
Manijeh “Mani” Berenji, MD, is an adjunct professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine att Duke University School of Medicine.