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Health Experts Issue New Prescription: To Stay Healthy Fight Climate Change

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Co-authored by Dr. Georges Benjamin

If you have ever checked on an elderly relative during a prolonged heat wave or nursed an asthmatic child on a bad air day, then you know severe weather can take a toll on our health. Many of us try to prepare for warmer temperatures or incoming storms. We set up fans, stock pile water, and keep our children safely indoors. But the task of protecting our families is getting harder now. Climate change is making weather events more extreme and more dangerous.

People are already feeling the effects. A stretch of unusually hot and humid days caused 32 heat-related deaths in Illinois in 2012. In Colorado, floods caused by record-breaking rains killed 10 people last September. And across the country, more than 400,000 people were admitted to the hospital for asthma in 2010, in part because hot weather fueled by climate change makes our air less healthy to breathe.

As a physician and an environmental advocate, the two of us have tracked these growing hazards in our work. We know that climate change doesn't just contribute to severe weather. It also endangers people's health.

Today the latest National Climate Assessment reached a similar conclusion. These government assessments were initiated by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and then mandated by Congress in 1990. Previous reports have outlined the looming crisis of climate change, but this edition underscores the threat it poses to the health and well-being of our families.

It concludes that Americans are already experiencing more respiratory illness, heart problems, and water-borne diseases as a result of climate change. And those threats will only increase if we don't take action now to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

Health experts are especially concerned about the impacts of rising temperatures. Extreme heat kills more Americans every year than hurricanes, tornadoes, and all other natural disasters combined, and now climate change is putting even more people at risk. The chances of experiencing an intensely hot summer rose from 1-in-300 (1951 through 1980) to 1-in-10 (1981 through 2010), according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The National Climate Assessment found that St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, and other cities have seen a dramatic increase in death rates and hospitalizations from heat waves. Hotter weather can trigger migraines, respiratory conditions, and heart and kidney problems.

But warmer temperatures also contribute to smog in the air, and breathing this pollution can inflame our lungs. Repeated inflammation over time can permanently scar lung tissue, even in low concentrations. The American Thoracic Society -- the professional association of lung doctors -- said climate change is especially dangerous for children and senior citizens because their lungs are more vulnerable to respiratory diseases caused by smog.

Climate change also increases the risk of floods. Flooding kills nearly 100 Americans every year, and that number is expected to grow as storms become more frequent and intense. Superstorm Sandy alone killed 117 people in the U.S. But the risks don't end when the storm fades. After Superstorm Sandy, at least 12 New Jersey communities urged residents to boil water before drinking it to prevent the spread of E. coli and similar gastrointestinal diseases. It doesn't take a hurricane to pose threats to our water. More than 750 cities and towns have older sewer systems that carry sewage and rain water in the same pipes. Heavy rains and flooding from climate change will lead to more incidents of untreated sewage flowing into our waterways.

It's time to do more to protect our loved ones from harm. We can start by ensuring we have the right systems in place to prepare for and respond to the effects of climate change. And we must reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change. This June, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants -- the largest source of carbon pollution in our country. We must support this effort if we are to address the grave health risks posed by climate change.

By taking action to limit carbon pollution, we can reduce threats to our health and provide future generations with safer air, cleaner energy, and a more stable climate.

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