Health Impacts

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”― Wendell Berry

Health Impacts of Climate Change
When people talk about climate change, they usually refer to the impact it has on the environment. However, recent reports are finding that climate change takes a significant toll on human health, both physical and mental. The latest IPCC report has given us just 10-12 years to respond to an emergency as yet undeclared, while extreme weather, pollution, toxicity and exposures to these new threats posed by climatic changes are on the rise. Finding ways to be informed, prepared and resilient is increasingly important as we are all very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the human industrial activity causing it. In fact, if you take a Gaia principle approach to this issue, you begin to understand that this Earth’s biosphere is also part of your own body and you quickly realize that its health is intimately tied to your own.

Physical Impacts
The UN is reporting that health risks related to climate change instigated by anthropogenic industrial activities are going up worldwide. Climate change is expected to exacerbate health problems that already pose a major burden to vulnerable populations. For example, Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist, recently discussed the affects of climate change on gender ratios of newborns. Additional studies are finding connections between birth defects and climate change. Senior populations are also more vulnerable to these threats according to research from the EPA and Carnegie Mellon University.

Air pollution and smog are significant and well-known issues that have now been impacting human health for decades. Increases in ozone and particulate matter from the burning of fossil fuels and other aerosol pollution often cited as among the primary drivers of climate change produced as a by product of industrial activity are very hard on the human respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Deaths from air pollution related illnesses have significantly increased and are expected to keep rising. 7 million premature deaths a year are now attributed to air pollution according to the WHO. N95 pollution masks and respirators are being advised in some cities.

“The fact that dirty air is bad for us is not rocket science; it is especially risky for children because their lungs, brains, and other organs are still maturing. Therefore, heavy and sustained exposure can lead to illness and other health problems that could last a lifetime. In rare cases it has led to years of painful hospital visits and eventual – and untimely – death. A World Health Organization (WHO) report, published late last year, highlighted the latest scientific evidence linking exposure to air pollution to adverse health effects…”

According to the EPA Chemical, heavy metal and toxic exposures are also presenting new challenges for health care providers to understand and diagnose. Epidemic rates of cancer have been linked to climate change.

As we know, these problems often get swept under the rug. They are rarely discussed in the mainstream media due to the well-known vagaries of manufactured consent, which places business as usual (BAU) profit motive above all else. When these topics do get coverage, there is often a knee jerk response to conclude that there is not a problem, to say that exposures are at “safe levels,” and to claim that these situations are under control before they are even understood. Prize winning scholars and journalists like Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Erin Brockovich, and many others are calling for us to take back the media.

When it comes to nuclear radiation, perhaps one of the most difficult to discuss environmental and human health hazards, this issue could not be more compounded. Radiation exposure from major worldwide nuclear accidents has impacted us in as yet untold ways. Many are unaware that the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daichi in Japan has adversely impacted health in the US and worldwide. There are those reporting on the potential of increased global cancer rates due to nuclear accidents like this, though information is highly contentious and hard to come by.

It is known that all those who were living during worldwide nuclear accidents have some of these radioactive isotopes now inside us. Recent news has reported that this situation is under better control, even though the facility has never been put into containment and is still leaking 7 years after the accident. At one point reports were saying that 300,000 tons of radioactive contaminated water were leaking into the Pacific Ocean daily.

The nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi is considered by many researchers such as nuclear physicist Arnie Gunderson to be a potential extinction level event, and others have called it a time bomb in quiescence. The Japanese film Shin Godzilla parodies the failed disaster response of the government very well. This is not the only source of nuclear radiation contamination in the ocean either. There’s The Dome, Novaya Zemlya, and many others. We know the oceans are in severe decline due to human activity. Ocean radiation is monitored by the Woods Hole Oceangraphic Institution. They are reporting that radiation levels are well below anything we should be concerned about. But these levels are still on the rise and need to be monitored.

Recently, it has become popular to drop the post-cold war era theory of radiation called the “Linear No-Threshold” (LNT), which states that any amount of radiation exposure poses some risks, however small, in favor of arguing that there are actually safe levels of exposure. Nuclear industry proponents often assert that low doses of radiation (e.g. below 100mSV) produce no ill effects and are therefore safe. Still as the US National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII report has concluded, no dose of radiation is safe, however small, including background radiation; exposure is cumulative and adds to an individual’s risk of developing cancer.

A dangerous yet common trend in industry is that when the risks of exposure go up, the allowance for safety tolerances also go up. This is the case with many toxins of late, not just radiation. A very recent example comes from Copernicus. When researchers noticed alarming levels of methane going off the charts, they changed the coding of the data and made a new scale with a much higher level of acceptable code red level ranges, effectively establishing a new normal. The Environmental Workers Group (EWG) reports on incidence of radiation and chemical contamination in US water, soil and more. They attempt to provide a list of toxic substances and rate as well as discuss the “safe levels” of chemicals and compounds.

The impacts of industrial waste are often too numerous to count say most corporations and governments who do not want to bear this burden. These impacts are also considered externalities or collateral damages, and few nations are fully prepared to deal with them.

“Pollution is also an externalized cost that is mostly heaped onto developing countries for the benefit of the “Global North” – mainly North America and Europe. Many corporations setup shop in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, and India, where labor is cheap and plentiful, and environmental laws are negligent. (…) An estimated 70% of China’s rivers are contaminated by toxic chemicals and almost half are unfit for human consumption. Yet even though the hormone-disrupting substances such as alkylphenols and perfluorinated chemicals are banned in the US and Europe, US-based corporations such as Adidas, Nike, Puma, Calvin Klein, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Lacoste have found their way around this ban by simply setting up shop abroad.” – CounterPunch

This is not to say this doesn’t also happen in North America and Europe. Rivers have been so polluted in some US cities that they burned. The Cuyahoga RIver in Ohio is one legendary example. The Monongahela River in Pennsylvania is another. Recently, there was a chemical spill into the Animas River in Colorado, which the EPA has failed to clean up. The entire town of Flint, Michigan, has notoriously polluted its own city water. A recent study says that 60% of European water bodies are highly polluted. These examples go on and on. We are only at the beginning of understanding the extents and impacts of anthropogenic pollution on public health and safety, let alone the environment.

The NIEHS-led Interagency Working Group Report from the National Institute of Health (NIH) on Climate Change and Health identified the following major research areas that need to be further explored and understood. These include the following:

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Mental Health & Stress Related Impacts of Climate Change
Climate change-induced extreme weather and other natural disasters as as well as industrial accidents and pollution have immediate effects on mental health in the form of the trauma and shock – and when these may subside, they can be replaced by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Being dubbed “ecoanxiety” this trend is beginning to occur on a large scale. Climate change related depression, anxiety, suicide, conflict, and violent crimes are on the rise as well. If you are experiencing significant, stress, depression, or anxiety it is good to consult with a counselor of your choosing, or if it’s urgent, call an Anxiety Hotline.

This report, released by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, says that severe weather events caused by climate change can cause shock connected to personal injuries, loss of a loved one, damage to or loss of personal property or even the loss of livelihood. Even though unprecedented fear of climate change is on the rise, there remains a reluctance to change business as usual which is resulting in cognitive dissonance and further stress.

All of these factors are significant stressors characterized as major life stressors by the American Psychological Association (APA). Only 30 years ago any one of these events occurring once or twice in a human lifetime would be considered tremendously stressful, but now we are hearing of and facing constant catastrophe.

Many scientists and researchers working in this field are also experiencing significant stress related to this increasingly controversial and difficult topic. Studying climate change can take its emotional toll they report. Especially scientists who know that even talking about climate change is hard (video), but necessary. Some scientists and activists have experienced grief, depression, and anxiety. Some have even received death threats due to the highly fractious nature of this subject. The following video from the Agenda discusses Burnout: The Toll of Studying Climate Change:

According to Wikipedia, “psychological resilience is the ability to successfully cope with a crisis and to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Resilience exists when the person uses mental processes and behaviors in promoting personal assets and protecting self from the potential negative effects of stressors.”

“There are many versions of the bird’s death, but in each, it rises the same way — out of its own ashes and into the sun. The myth of the phoenix, that symbol of endurance, began in Arabian and Egyptian folklore and was brought to the West by Herodotus 2,500 years ago.” – New York Times, The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience’

Strategies for developing resilience as a response to climate change are just emerging such as Jem Bendall’s Deep Adaptation Agenda and Rick Hanson’s HEAL. Deep Adaptation, according to a Bloomberg review of this topic, offers a mix of adaptive responsiveness from physical changes like “pulling back from the coast, closing climate-exposed industrial facilities, planning for food rationing, letting landscapes return to their natural state—with cultural shifts, including “giving up expectations for certain types of consumption” and “learning to rely more on the people around us.”

Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist, explains Rick Hanson’s HEAL strategy (video) “with a basic knowledge of your brain, you can use your Mind to change your Brain to change your Mind. Neurons that Fire together Wire together, according to neuroscientist Hanson. Using an easy method (acronym HEAL) Hanson explains “‘taking in the good’ to build inner strengths into people’s psyches. This is NOT ‘positive thinking’ which is problematic; but it is a quick way to enrich and install positive experiences and rewire brain circuits (create synapses, overwrite others, create new neural pathways) to build up inner strengths.

The impacts of seeing and hearing more news related to these matters constantly also takes a toll even for those not directly experiencing these traumas there is significant vicarious trauma. Returning to nature, rewiliding, and reclusion have all been recommended recently as healing modalities for anxiety and depression related to climate change.

If you can’t literally return to nature, turn to the nature poets, literature and philosophies such as those provided by Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau, Kamo no Chomei, HH the Dalai Lama, Rachel Carson, Marianne Williamson (video), Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sadguru, James Lovelock, John Zerzan, Eckhart Tolle and many others. If reading is not your thing, try art therapy, gardening, nature hiking, or movement therapy. According to Edward Abbey, wise action is the antidote to despair. It’s important to find what works for you.

How Living in the Present Will Help Save the Future
Wendell Berry said recently displaying his profound sense of wisdom that “so far as I am concerned, the future has no narrative. The future does not exist until it has become the past. To a very limited extent, prediction has worked. The sun, so far, has set and risen as we have expected it to do. And the world, I suppose, will predictably end, but all of its predicted deadlines, so far, have been wrong.”

No one can predict what will happen, so future worry won’t help. What will help is being in the moment, doing the right thing despite the odds, and preparing the best you can given your situation. There’s no question these and other new prepping skills will be needed as we continue to face the so far unmitigated effects of climate change and industrial activity as a global species. Building emergency and emotional preparedness is recommended. There are many resources to get started provided here.

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