April 22 is Earth Day. It’s a time to join forces and commit to an action plan to take better care of our world, which will help to take better care of people. One of the largest threats affecting people’s health is climate change. Climate change affects clean air, safe drinking water, food, and shelter – all Social Determinants of Health.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.”
WHO also estimates that every year around 13 million deaths occur due to avoidable environmental factors.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) shows that residents will be faced with “worsened air quality, increased damage from flooding, agricultural loss, and expansion of vector-borne diseases like Lyme Disease” all due to climate change.
DEP’s 2021 Climate Impacts Assessment looks at the impact of climate change on human health. In Pennsylvania, increased temperatures can lead to higher:
- Heat-related illnesses or deaths
- Mosquito and tick-borne illness
- Violence and crimes
- Anxiety and mood disorders
In a May 5, 2021 press conference regarding the assessment, it was reported by Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) secretary Patrick McDonnell that “Pennsylvanians health will be at a catastrophic risk from heat waves, which are the number one cause of weather-related fatalities in the United States.”
For individuals who work outside in fields like construction or farming, there can be major risks.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture showed that there were 557 farms in Cambria County totaling 79,341 acres and 901 producers. Somerset County had 1,152 farms on 219,046 acres and 2,093 producers. The majority of climate problems, such as heat and flooding, will affect farmers across the two counties.
Heat waves can be detrimental for people with Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) needs as well. Oftentimes, people will seek cooler temperatures at public places like a library or mall; however, if transportation is difficult to obtain, people are more at risk of uncomfortably hot temperatures and the medical issues that follow.
An increase in Pennsylvania flooding can also cause severe health impacts, such as:
- Disrupting critical services
- Making driving conditions more hazardous
- Exposure to contaminated floodwater
- Decreased indoor quality due to mold growth
- Mental health impacts
However, Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth will not be impacted equally. DEP shows many factors that make specific populations more vulnerable, like those who have SDOH needs, to climate change:
- Race or ethnicity
- Food insecurity
- Diminished mobility (low access to vehicles/public transportation)
- Outdoor employment
- Proximity to toxic sites or hazardous facilities
SDOH needs can drive up to 80% of health outcomes, and when coupled with how climate change will affect those same populations, a health disaster is imminent unless we change our course of action