Other problems worsened by global warming

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The IPCC points out a number of health concerns that civilization already deals with that might worsen because of climate changes and extreme weather events:

I Allergies: If you have allergies to pollen and dust, those allergies could get worse, depending on where you live. If global warming brings you an early spring, that early spring will bring pollen, too — extending your allergy season. Countries such as Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands will probably be most affected by the increase in pollen because they're undergoing larger seasonal changes than more southern countries.

I Contaminated drinking water: This could be a risk for areas that see an increase in rainfall and flooding because of global warming. During Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., for example, water supplies became contaminated, and many cases of diarrheal diseases appeared, some of which were fatal. (We talk about flooding and water contamination in detail in Chapter 7.)

I Dengue fever: Found in warm climates, this disease causes severe joint pain. Like malaria, it's carried by mosquitoes. A pool of still water is a mosquito's honeymoon suite. Consequently, a lot of rain (creating more pools of water where mosquitoes breed) combined with temperatures warm enough for the mosquito to survive can increase its spread — but oddly, so can drought. When drought hits an area, more people store water outdoors, creating other excellent mosquito-breeding sites. The IPCC expects that global warming will create climates in both New Zealand and Australia that are favorable for mosquitoes and for dengue, and that both countries will see more species of mosquitoes that can carry the virus.

One report shows that about a third of the world already has favorable conditions for dengue and that 5 to 6 billion people will be at risk of dengue by 2085, compared to the 3.5 billion that would be at risk without climate change as a factor.

l Diarrheal disease: Think extreme diarrhea. This disease occurs most frequently in Australia, Peru, Israel, and islands in the Pacific Ocean when the temperatures soar and rainfall patterns change. Bacteria thrive in higher temperatures, and flooding increases the risk of infecting drinking water sources. Areas that have poor sanitation have even greater risk.

I Lung problems: Air pollution often worsens health issues, such as asthma. Smog episodes, for example, are more intense during heat waves — so, you find more lung problems in big cities than anywhere else. Many greenhouse gases — methane and nitrous oxide to name two — just happen to also pollute the air. The women and children in some developing countries have a higher prevalence of lung cancer because of the smoke from fires that they burn to cook their meals — whereas the men aren't as affected since they are out of the house for most of the day.

I Lyme disease: Carried by ticks that hang out in trees and burrow into your skin (yuck), Lyme disease can cause everything from joint swelling, fever, and a rash to significant disability. For example, Lyme disease has moved north in Sweden because of milder winters and is becoming more common in Portugal and the Netherlands. It has spread in North America, as well.

l Skin cancer: Too much direct sun exposure can cause this form of cancer. In areas that experience rising temperatures, people often want to be outside in the sun more and wear less clothing. To add to the problem, greenhouse gases (GHGs) actually cool the upper layers of the atmosphere, which creates perfect conditions for ozone-depleting gases that create holes in the ozone layer. And that means less protection from the sun. An increased risk of skin cancer is particularly worrying in places with depleted ozone, such as Australia, where people already have a high risk to dangerous sun exposure.

l Vermin: Rats, mice, and other rodents often carry disease. Flooding or heavy rain pushes these little critters out of their burrows and directly into the paths of humans. Low-income countries that are susceptible to flooding, such as many within Central America, are particularly at risk.

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