Research has shown that our hearts and lungs are likely to bear the brunt of the damage that climate change will do to our health.
According to Dr. Mary B. Rice — an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University who also works in the pulmonary and critical care unit of Massachusetts General Hospital — reducing carbon dioxide emissions and associated air pollutants is crucial for mitigating these negative health effects.
As Dr. Rice and colleagues note in an article in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine:
“The long-term health benefits of avoiding mortality and morbidity due to temperature extremes, air pollution, pollen, floods, droughts, storms, desertification, and malnutrition justify climate change mitigation — not only from an economic standpoint but also from a moral one.”
A dual aspect of this involves the effects of climate change on thunderstorms and the possible effects of thunderstorms on human health.
Research has shown that as global temperatures increase due to climate change, thunderstorms are likely to become more intense. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence has pointed to a possible link between thunderstorms and poor respiratory health.
As a consequence, if climate change increases the intensity of thunderstorms, it may result in worsened health, with a potential increase in mortality due to respiratory issues.
To investigate this link, the authors of the present study analysed data from more than 46.5 million Medicare beneficiaries in the United States between January 1999 and December 2012. Medicare is a federal health insurance plan that primarily benefits people aged 65 or older.
The mean age of the participants was 77 years, and 58.6% were female, 10.5% had asthma, 26.5% had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and 6.6% had both.
From these data, the authors could identify more than 22 million visits to an emergency department for respiratory issues.
The authors cross-checked these data with lightning and atmospheric data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, identifying 822,095 days during those same years when the relevant areas had significant thunderstorms.
The authors noted that thunderstorms were associated with an increase in temperature and particulate matter — very small particles and liquid droplets that can contribute to air pollution.
After analyzing the data and checking for confounding factors that could also affect the rate of emergency care required, the researchers found around 52,000 additional visits to emergency rooms during 3 or more days on either side of a significant thunderstorm over the 14-year period.
This particularly affected people with asthma or COPD.
They also found that visits to emergency departments peaked more significantly in the days before a thunderstorm.
Given the increased heat and levels of particulate matter associated with thunderstorms, the researchers speculate that these may be exacerbating respiratory illnesses: Previous research has shown that both increased heat and levels of particulate matter can heighten a person’s chances of hospitalization.
The research has some limits — it is an observational study and only drew on information from people over the age of 65. It is not clear whether the trend observed extends to younger individuals.
Nonetheless, the research may provide further evidence of the detrimental health effects caused by human-influenced climate change.