What do allergies, liver failure, premature birth, depression and heat stroke have in common? They are health effects from climate change happening in North Carolina and expected to increase in the coming decades.
A new comprehensive report offers details on how the increasing numbers of extreme weather events are affecting air and water quality, challenging the ability of health care facilities to respond to community needs, compromising food and water supplies, exacerbating existing illnesses and disparities, and threatening to overwhelm people emotionally.
While no community is immune, Eastern North Carolina will be particularly hard hit. The report predicts a 400 percent to 500 percent increase in the number of weeks with risks of very large fires. The hottest days of the year will be 4 degrees to 5 degrees hotter, while precipitation will increase by 5 percent, with the wettest days seeing increase of at least 10 percent more precipitation.
Extreme weather patterns, such as those experienced in 2015, had a tremendous effect on low-lying coastal communities such as Morehead City. These areas experienced a huge increase in flooding, which led to severe stormwater drainage and transportation problems. Increased heavy precipitation will increase runoff from Eastern North Carolina’s hog and chicken farms and fields, contaminating drinking water supplies and coastal recreation and fishing areas, and the damp heat will encourage mold. The favorable conditions for mosquitoes will increase incidence of vector-borne diseases like West Nile virus.
These changes threaten everyone, but some people are particularly vulnerable. The Eastern NC region has among the highest asthma-related emergency department visits in the state. Changes in the climate can affect the levels of outdoor pollutants, such as particle pollution, pollen and ozone levels, and can pose additional problems for people who that suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems.
The report found that exposure to climate-related or weather-related disasters threaten mental health, with higher risk for adverse mental health consequences among children, the elderly, women (especially pregnant and post-partum women), people with pre-existing illness, the economically disadvantaged, the homeless and first responders. The burgeoning population of elderly as well as agricultural workers and military personnel are especially susceptible to adverse reactions to heat waves. The incidence of heat illness among active duty U.S. military personnel is several-fold higher than in the general U.S. population, and a large proportion of those cases occur in the Southern United States.
N.C. continues to experience heat-related deaths and leads the country in agricultural worker deaths. The data show that rural populations of N.C. have a higher rate of heat-related illness compared with urban populations. From 1992 to 2006, N.C. accounted for 57 percent of all U.S. heat related deaths among crop workers.
The Obama administration has proposed a Climate Action Plan to address these threats. While the plan proposes measures to prepare for and mitigate extreme weather, its primary focus is on tackling the cause of climate change: carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The most significant measure is the Clean Power Plan, the first nationwide effort to address climate change by transitioning to renewable energy. This plan requires each state to achieve a customized emissions reduction target and involve people from its most vulnerable communities in figuring out how to reach that target.
Instead of responding to this urgent threat to the health and well-being of our residents, North Carolina has chosen to join 26 other states in suing the Environmental Protection Agency for proposing the plan and is hiding behind a protective order from the U.S. Supreme Court allowing states to hold off on taking measures to stop carbon emissions as the lawsuit works its way through the system. Temperature rise and extreme weather events, not subject to a court order, will continue apace.
This new report makes clear the effect of climate change on the health of us all, but particularly among vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, the homeless, recent immigrants and people of color. It is vital to our health that government agencies take all steps possible to comply with regulations designed to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change.
Dr. Greg Kearney teaches at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. Dr. Daniel Neuspiel teaches at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. Both are members of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, a program of Clean Air Carolina.