Managing The Impact Of Climate Change On Human Health
Check out the news or social media, and you’ll see evidence of climate change causing extreme temperatures and adverse weather events. But climate change’s powerful impact on human health may not be so obvious — unless you work in health care.
Climate change concerns all nurses — because environmental health touches every patient. But not all nurses understand why it’s important and how they can make a difference, according to Katie Huffling, DNP, RN, CNM, FAAN, Executive Director for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.
“Climate change is big and can be scary, so it's easy to feel paralyzed,” Katie says. “You may wonder if your individual actions will matter in the long run. But there are more than 4 million nurses in the U.S. If we all do a little bit, it can have a big impact.”
The Connection Between Climate Change and Health
Climate change impacts human health on many levels, including:
Temperature increases can make you uncomfortable, but the impact on health is more substantial than discomfort. Higher temps often bring a rise in heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion — especially for people who work outdoors, such as farmers and construction workers. But changes in temperature can also:
- Cause respiratory issues: An increasing number of wildfires disturb air quality in the immediate area and across the country — wildfire smoke can travel hundreds or thousands of miles. Poor air quality is dangerous to people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions and can cause serious illness over time.
- Increase risk of vector-borne diseases: Warming temperatures and increased precipitation encourage the spread of climate-sensitive diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and malaria.
- Limit access to basic needs: Climate change is increasing the occurrence and magnitude of floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. These traumatic events directly affect access to food, drinking water, health care, and shelter.
- Worsen allergies: Warmer temperatures encourage a longer and more intense pollen season. Research shows that pollen season begins 20 days earlier, lasts 10 days longer, and produces 21% more pollen than in 1990.
Additionally, climate change can disproportionately affect certain communities. The communities at greatest risk according to the American Public Health Association (APHA) include:
- Children, who have developing organs and immunity.
- Communities of color, who may have health disparities.
- Low-income communities, who may have less resources or inadequate infrastructure.
- Older adults, especially if they have decreased immunity, comorbidities, or limited mobility.
Whether people experience the effects of climate change first-hand or learn about it through the media, it’s affecting mental health by:
- Causing anxiety: Seeing the effects of climate change worldwide causes stress in both younger people and adults. They worry about their family’s safety and having their basic needs met. Children, teens, and young adults also have fears about their future.
- Increasing abuse cases: Research shows that gender-based violence worsens during and after extreme climate events. Katie says that child abuse cases increase 6 times after extreme weather-related events.
- Limiting access to medication and treatment: Extreme weather events make it hard for people with existing mental health conditions to access their medication and therapy.
How Environmental Health Directly Impacts Nurses
Nurses spend more time with patients than other health care professionals. In one study, patients in intensive care reported that 85% of their time spent with medical professionals was with nurses.
“Nursing is a very holistic profession,” Katie says. “We recognize that where our patients live, work, and play impacts their health. If we’re not addressing or considering climate change, it’s much harder to do our jobs and ensure our patients live in an environment that promotes health.”
In addition to feeling the effects of climate change through their patients, many nurses may feel it through increasing staffing issues and work stress.
“One of the biggest issues nurses deal with right now is staffing, and it becomes more complicated in the face of climate change,” Katie says. “It brings an increased volume of patients. Extreme weather events and wildfires can also cause evacuations or result in hospital systems going down. It adds another level of complexity. We need to address climate change because it has such a direct impact on health care.”
What Nurses Can Do
Education is essential in managing and overcoming the effects of climate change. Environmental health is now part of the curriculum for nursing students. But if you’re already in the workforce, you may need to educate yourself and adjust your patient care. The hope, says Katie, is that nurses everywhere share their knowledge and experience with patients and government leaders.
She suggests several ways nurses can raise awareness about environmental health:
Include environmental health in your patient care
As a nurse, you take complex medical information and translate it into something easily digestible for patients. Use those skills when educating your patients about environmental health.
“Weave environmental health into the discussion but keep it relatable,” Katie says. For example, help patients with COPD understand why the air quality on high-heat days concerns them. Then guide them on how to manage it. “You’re not exactly talking about climate change, but you’re helping them make that link between the environment they live in and their worsening disease.”
Use your voice
Nurses are the largest portion of the health care workforce, says Katie. And your trusted voices go a long way in advocating for environmental health with policymakers and elected officials.
“Nurses have such an important voice,” she says. “And I feel like we haven't always been as successful at using it as we could be. Just talking to policymakers and elected officials, as nurses, about our experiences and the importance of addressing climate change is incredibly powerful.”
Not sure where to start? Katie recommends reaching out to your state nurses association. The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments offers several opportunities and resources for getting involved.
Make small but impactful changes
The health care industry uses a lot of energy and products. If you’d like to begin by making small changes, Katie recommends setting an example at work to change the culture of your health care institution:
- Conserve energy by turning off lights and televisions when no one uses the space.
- Avoid single-use plastic — which often can’t be recycled — by using reusable silverware and containers for your meals and snacks.
- Pay attention to waste generated by hospital products and recommend ways to reduce waste to hospital leaders.
Katie adds that the most important thing you can do as a nurse is to take that first step toward change. “There’s a lot of continuing education around climate change and health,” she says. “If there's a specific area around climate change that's of interest to you or your particular patient population, I would start there.”
How is your organization confronting environmental health issues? Share with us in our discussion.
RELATED: Read how Katie Huffling, DNP, RN, CNM, FAAN brings passion and optimism to environmental health issues in this #healthynurse Spotlight.
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