Many people don’t connect the growing concern of a warmer climate and carbon emissions to the everyday impact on our lives. Many think of climate change as a problem that must be addressed, but not the imminent consequences. A recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine detailed the death risk associated with fine particulate matter and ozone in the air for every zip code in the country. The researchers found that despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current air quality standards, strengthening these standards could save 12,000 lives annually. These incredibly small particulates, which are mainly released into the atmosphere by power plants, cars, and industrial practices, get deep into the lungs and increase the incidence of lung cancer, acute respiratory illnesses, arteriosclerosis, and asthma.
The report included a map of our state, showing that most of central and eastern Minnesota has between 10 and 11 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air. These levels of particulates are about 1 to 2 micrograms per cubic meter lower than the EPA standard, but still indicate an increased risk of disease when compared to other areas, like northern Minnesota, which has fine particulate matter levels closer to 7 or 8 micrograms per cubic meter.
This report, however, only touches on one health consequence of climate change, while Minnesotans are susceptible to many other exposures that are directly caused or exacerbated by global climate change. For instance, increased temperatures in Minnesota in the spring through autumn months has led to significantly more pollen in the air. The increased temperatures extended the season for pollens like ragweed by about 2 to 3 weeks between 1995 and 2013. These pollens are incredible respiratory irritants (as anyone with asthma or allergies knows), and the combined effects of the increased levels of ozone, fine particulates, and pollen has led to a higher risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), particularly among Native Americans and Hispanics. This has a major impact on Minnesotans’ ability to work, as 1 in 5 Minnesota adults who were unable to work in 2011 reportedly had COPD, according to the Minnesota Health Department. Asthma rates are augmented by pollution from highways, as a 2014 report detailed. The Minnesota Health Department found that those living on the I-94 corridor had higher rates of asthma, particularly among children. With temperatures rising, we can expect incidence of asthma to rise in the next century, and those with asthma to experience more severe attacks.
Another problem that could grow with the rising temperatures is incidence of heat stroke, and other illnesses related to overheating and dehydration. The EPA noted that heat has increasingly been the cause of deaths since 1980, and that dramatic increases in heat-related deaths are associated with heat waves. The 2015 Minnesota Climate and Health Profile Report noted that there were spikes in heat-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations in years with drastic spikes in temperatures, such as in 2001, 2006, and 2011 (all of which had days that broke records for temperature). If Minnesotans can expect more record breaking temperatures in the coming years, we can also expect more hospitalizations and deaths associated with these spikes.
Climate change also increases the risk for severe storms and flooding. Rainfall during severe storms increased 35% in the last half-century in Minnesota. These storms can be deadly, and this greatly increases the likelihood and severity of flooding, which can also kill people. For instance, flash floods following torrential rainfalls in the Midwest killed 22 people in August of 2007, seven of whom were Minnesotans.
The potential for floods to harm people doesn’t stop when the waters recede: standing water can stagnate and breed insects that carry diseases like West Nile virus. If sewage systems fail, fecal matter can mix with drinking water supplies and increase the risk for diseases like dysentery, E. coli, and norovirus. Flooded basements can retain water that breeds mold and irritates the respiratory system, with some molds capable of killing people.
Although Minnesota’s climate is too cold to be a viable habitat for the aedes aegypti mosquito, further climate change could expand the range of these mosquitos out of the Gulf Coast region and into the Upper Midwest. This is important because these mosquitos carry the Zika virus, chikungunya, and dengue at much higher rates than other mosquitos (they prefer humans for feeding, not other animals), and they are much tougher to kill (all it takes is a bottle cap’s worth of water to breed, and they hide very well). Zika virus is not particularly deadly on its own, but the disease causes microcephaly in infants whose mothers are infected while pregnant. Chikungunya causes joint pain and, in severe cases, causes encephalitis (inflammation of the brain); dengue causes high fever, joint pain, and pain behind the eyes, but when left untreated can also cause dengue hemorrhagic fever, whose symptoms include organ damage, severe bleeding, and dehydration. Clearly, the aedes aegypti should be avoided if possible, but a warmer climate in Minnesota could make its arrival in the Midwest inevitable.
Climate change is largely seen through the prism of how it impacts the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters. These are all crucially important to mitigate, and soon; however, this lens fails to consider how we Minnesotans are affected by climate change, especially when it comes to our health. If left unchecked, climate change is going to make Minnesota summers significantly more miserable healthwise.