The latest UN climate report caused a lot of headlines, and alarm. It warned that we have about a decade to make the changes necessary to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
Yet, when Stephanie Chalupka speaks to people all over the country about the health impacts of climate change, she says people seem surprised. They think about climate change as affecting penguins and polar bears, not people.
Chalupka is professor and associate dean of Worcester State University’s nursing department, and is Visiting Scientist at the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Georgetown University. One of Chalupka’s areas of expertise is climate change and kids’ health.
She was in Pittsburgh recently to speak at a healthy schools summit, put on by the group Women for a Healthy Environment. Kara Holsopple sat down with her to learn more.
Kara Holsopple: What are the ways that climate change can impact the health of children?
Stephanie Chalupka: Climate change itself will bring about worsening air quality, and that puts children at risk. Fine particulate matter – particularly traffic-related air pollutants – can penetrate very deeply into our lungs and cause very serious problems for children. The air pollution gets trapped and therefore concentrated.
An increase in extreme weather events puts children at risk, too, because when they are displaced and become climate refugees, they are exposed to adverse childhood experiences that can have lifelong impacts.
We are seeing more severe storms, and this increases flooding of school buildings and homes, bringing mold and a variety of other risks including waterborne diseases. As we have flooding, we have contamination of drinking water — not only biological, but chemical, too. Industrial storage facilities or Superfund sites get flooded, and carry toxins into what would be potable drinking water.
Our changing climate has also brought diseases to regions that never experienced them. The earlier spring and later winter extend the season during which these organisms can reproduce and multiply, bringing West Nile Virus and Lyme disease to areas that never experienced the diseases before. If you look at the map of Lyme disease prevalence in the United States in the year 2000, versus the year 2017, it has just moved across the country.
KH: And say a little bit more about the psychological impacts of climate change, because I know that something that you’ve published on.
SC: Climate change has a variety of psychological impacts. First of all, during extreme heat events, we know that there’s an increase in child abuse, domestic violence and suicide. We see increases in issues with those who have pre-existing mental health conditions, because they frequently take medications that make them more susceptible to extreme heat events.
KH: And how are children uniquely susceptible to these risks?
SC: Children are uniquely susceptible because they depend on adults. They have immature respiratory systems. So as climate change brings us worsening air pollution, they are much more significantly at risk, and not just those who already have asthma.
Children are more at risk for Lyme disease and West Nile virus because they spend more time outside, and engage in different behaviors than adults. So almost every adverse health outcome that we see in adults, related to climate change, is actually magnified with children.
KH: Are these impacts happening now?
SC: This is very serious, and it’s happening now. I work largely with children with asthma, and we are definitely seeing increases related to poor air quality days, which are increasing related to global climate change.
KH: What role do nurses play in addressing climate change and its health impacts on their patients?
SC: Part of what we do is health promotion and disease prevention. And so it’s important to us to get the message out, and help families dealing with children with asthma or older adults dealing with bad air quality days that are making their heart condition or respiratory condition worse. It’s important to us to be part of the solution. We’re no longer really in the phase where we can put all our hopes in stopping climate change. We need to start working on resilience and adaptation, which is an effort to help people to respond. So helping with community shelters, cooling stations — helping to prepare communities to be resilient in the face of extreme weather events.
KH: So nurses are on the front lines?
SC: Absolutely. Nurses are the foot soldiers of public health because there are over three million of us. We have the opportunity to make an impact. And many of the things that we try to teach people about, in terms of addressing climate change, have important co-benefits. So to tell people to bike and walk, instead of using your car where it’s possible; eat less red meat — all of these are actually healthy for us as individuals, aside from the climate issue.
KH: And what about advocating for climate policy? Is there a role there for nurses and medical community?
SC: Absolutely. It’s incumbent upon us to be a voice for our community, because we understand intimately the connection between climate and health, and to advocate for policy solutions. It is great to change our individual behavior. We can’t underestimate the importance of our own individual contributions. But the only way forward is policy and large scale action, because there’s no way out of this except by working together at a higher level.
Stephanie Chalupka is professor and associate dean of Worcester State University’s nursing department, and is Visiting Scientist at the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Georgetown University.