Beyond the Storm: How Climate Change Threatens Public Health


The immediate impacts of extreme storms like Sandy, Irma, Harvey and Jose, Maria are front page news  – detailing loss of life, injury, destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure. 

But often what doesn’t make headlines are the chronic health issues that persist beyond the storms themselves, and will impact some of our most vulnerable communities the most.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program estimates that “every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change.

Whether driven by accelerating sea level rise, more frequent storms, or rising temperatures, climate change threatens public health in many ways.

Health Effects of a Region Under Water

Over the next 30 years, the number of people living in places at risk of flooding from an extreme storm in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region is likely to double from 1 million to 2 million. With frequent flooding, homes and their inhabitants can be exposed to mold and unsafe living conditions. Occasional or permanent flooding can also limit access vital amenities like emergency services. 12% of the region’s hospital beds and 8% of the region’s nursing home beds are in the 2050 floodplain. Disruptions to infrastructure due to flooding can also cause disruptions in the food supply.  Over half of New York City’s food is moved through four bridges and two tunnels which can be. This can be a particular challenge for lower income New Yorkers, who already face challenges accessing healthy food. Public health threats posed by flooding and extreme storms are not just physical. These events can also endanger mental health, causing trauma and stress as a result of injuries, damage to one’s home, or displacement.

Contamination of Water and Air

Frequent and extreme flooding also exacerbate the threats posed by contaminated sites.  If a storm like Hurricane Harvey were to hit the New Jersey Meadowlands, floodwaters would inundate over 500 contaminated sites, six wastewater treatment plants, five petroleum production terminals, and a handful of old landfills — potentially unleashing dangerous contaminants into the estuarine ecosystem and adjacent communities.

In addition to the effects of floodwaters, rising temperatures and changing climate are also affecting the quality of air we breathe. While air quality in the region has improved overall in recent decades, 2.5 million people in the region, particularly in Long Island and New Jersey, live in places with ozone levels of 50 parts per billion or higher, which is considered sub-optimal for human health.  Overall, climate change is projected to increase ozone-related deaths in the Northeast, although it is possible that some places will see reductions.  Rising temperatures and more carbon in the air can increase the growing season, increasing exposure to certain allergy-inducing pollens.  And while more research needs to be done in the areas, indoor air quality may also be affected by climate change.  Air pollution from outdoors may enter indoors.  Rising temperatures may increase the instances of diseases such as Legionnaires’ disease.  Increased humidity can increase exposure to mold.

Diseases on the Rise

Another climate risk is an increase in vector borne diseases such as ticks and mosquitoes. Already, New York City saw a quadrupling of the number of cases of Lyme disease between 2000-2003 and 2012-2015, and northern New Jersey saw a 50% increase at the same time period.  Rising temperatures could potentially increase exposure to Lyme disease by increasing the length of time ticks can feed.   Mosquito-born diseases such as the West Nile Virus may also increase as rising temperatures extend the season in which they are active (although some locations may see decreases).

Addressing Climate Change with Health in Mind

Climate change poses a complex threat to our region’s health and well being. And yet, funding and coordinated efforts to address these threats are structured to respond to the immediate consequences of extreme storms — not to address the effects that linger on for months or years after, and not to plan for long-term resilience and adaptation.

We need to change the way we plan and pay for climate adaptation — for the health and survival of our communities. RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan proposal for a coastal commission, funded by state adaptation trust funds, will help get us there.

 

Photo: Hurricane Sandy damage in Staten Island. Credit: John de Guzman Creative Commons

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