2017 was a year of extreme weather. Hurricanes devastated Texas and the Caribbean, monsoon floods relocated millions and killed over a thousand people in South Asia, and nearly two million acres of land was ablaze across the US.
We are now waking up to the alarming possibilities of climate change—and the impact is going beyond environmental destruction.1 Increasingly frequent extreme weather is also taking its toll on people’s respiratory health. As the climate becomes disrupted, the US will continue to experience longer, hotter summers. While this might seem ideal to those of us who welcome warm weather, for people living with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), high temperatures can exacerbate existing problems and lead to hyperventilation, shortness of breath, and overheating due to poor circulation.2
Along with more warm weather, heat and drought conditions can increase the number and severity of wildfires, which cause damage far beyond their point of origin. The smoke from wildfires in the US can travel far across the country, and can have severe consequences on respiratory health. Tiny particles—roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair—of ash and other substances in the smoke can easily aggravate the lungs of those with respiratory conditions, leading to increased emergency room visits, medication use, hospital admissions and mortality.2,3 When even smaller particles are produced—less than 0.1 micron in diameter—they can pass through the lungs, into the bloodstream and end up in circulation with oxygen molecules. Exposure to this particle pollution can pose even more serious health threats, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, and cardiovascular damage.4
The knock-on effects of higher temperatures don’t stop there either. A warmer atmosphere carries more water vapor which worsens rainstorms, and raises ocean surface temperatures which is linked to increased severity of hurricanes.5 Who can forget the devastation Hurricane Harvey caused last year? Aside from the storm itself, the sheer volume of water it left behind forced nearly 40,000 people out of their homes,6 and caused the Earth’s crust to sink under the weight by two centimetres.6,7 For people living with respiratory diseases, flooding brings additional dangers from mold and fungus growth, which can lead to coughing, wheezing, exacerbations and airway infections. Severe flooding can also leave those who depend on caregivers, emergency services or oxygen deliveries in a life-threatening situation.2,8
As the climate continues to warm it’s not just extreme weather events that can affect how easily we can breathe. Protective facemasks have become a common daily sight for city-dwellers, due to pollution and ground-level ozone—also known as smog. This colorless gas, formed in the air by complex chemical reactions, is becoming increasingly present in heavily polluted areas. Short-term exposure to ozone can cause shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain and exacerbations for those living with respiratory conditions, while long-term exposure is even thought to be a factor in asthma development.2,8 British artist Michael Pinsky was so concerned about the public’s lack of awareness towards toxic air, that he constructed ‘pollution pods’ in the heart of London. Each pod emulated the unique atmospheric conditions of different locations around the world (using safe chemicals), so people could experience what it felt like to move from Norway’s clean Tautra Island air, to Sao Paulo’s toxic smog—leaving people sneezing, coughing and even running out of the pods.9
The fatal effects of climate change on respiratory health are becoming increasingly apparent. If we don’t start reducing greenhouse emissions soon, worldwide temperature increases will lead to severe climatic disruption and devastating consequences. In the US, the de-carbonization of transportation and power generation systems is vital to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So what can we do to help? By moving towards zero-emission trips—riding a bike, walking, or driving an electric car—we can begin to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and transition to clean, renewable sources of energy.2 If we begin to conserve our electrical use at home, or even use energy-efficient appliances, we can also help to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use. Raising awareness is key—simply talking to friends, family and co-workers about the importance of conserving fossil fuels can help to spread the word about energy conservation. Taking these small steps towards reducing greenhouse emissions will help to protect not only those with respiratory conditions, but our society as a whole.