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Health risks from climate change worsen, experts warn

Climate change continues to have a worsening effect on health and mortality around the world, according to a comprehensive report released Tuesday by an international team of 114 researchers.

One of the most striking findings is that heat-related deaths among people aged over 65 have increased by 85% since the 1990s, according to modeling that incorporates both changing temperatures and demography. People in this age group, as well as babies, are particularly vulnerable to health risks like heatstroke. As global temperatures rise, older people and infants are now exposed to twice as many heatwave days per year as between 1986 and 2005.

The report, published in the medical journal The Lancet, also notes estimated income loss and food insecurity. Globally, exposure to extreme heat and resulting productivity losses or inability to work may have led to income losses of up to $863 billion in 2022. And, in 2021, it is estimated that an additional 127 million people experienced moderate or severe food insecurity related to food insecurity. heatwaves and droughts, compared to the period 1981-2010.

“We have lost very valuable years on climate action and that has had a huge health cost,” said Marina Romanello, a researcher at University College London and executive director of the report, known as The Lancet Countdown. “The loss of life, the consequences that people are suffering, are irreversible. »

The public health indicators tracked in the report have generally declined over the nine years that researchers have produced editions of the assessment.

The analysis also looked at health outcomes in different countries, including the United States. Heat-related deaths among adults 65 and older increased by 88% between 2018 and 2022, compared to 2000-04. An estimated 23,200 older Americans will have died in 2022 from exposure to extreme heat.

For health professionals, statistics are neither abstract nor anonymous.

“These numbers remind me of the elderly patients I see in my own hospital suffering from heat stroke,” said Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Salas is one of the co-authors of the report and said she views the project as tracking a patient’s vital signs, but on a national and international scale.

The data can help fill a gap for federal policymakers.

“We have a limited set of indicators on climate change and health that are routinely collected in the United States,” said Dr. John Balbus, director of the department’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. American Health and Human Services. He did not contribute to this report and is not currently involved in The Lancet Countdown, but previously served as scientific advisor to the project’s funder.

Dr. Balbus cautioned that this report primarily measures people’s exposure to climate-related risks rather than actual health outcomes, such as disease rates. In order to move from exposures to real health outcomes, he said more investment in research is needed.

For the first time, this year’s Lancet Countdown included projections for the future. If the global average temperature rises 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, an increasingly likely future unless society significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the number of heat-related deaths will increase annually by 370 percent by the middle of this century. the report found.

At the same time, researchers point out that reducing pollution from fossil fuels proves beneficial for global health. Deaths from fossil fuel-related air pollution have declined 15 percent since 2005, with most of the improvement due to fewer coal-related pollution entering the atmosphere.

The value of the Lancet Countdown lies in its ongoing monitoring of the effects of climate change on global health, said Sharon Friel, director of the Planetary Health Equity Hothouse at the Australian National University.

Dr. Friel was not involved in the report, but read it and wrote an accompanying commentary.

Dr. Howard Frumkin, former special assistant to the director for climate change and health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the report was a valuable dashboard, but the climate impacts he was most concerned about did not were not the obvious ones. Researchers and policymakers need to pay attention to the health effects of people displaced by climate change and migrants, Dr. Frumkin said.

“If you’re going through cancer chemotherapy, or if you’re going through kidney dialysis, or if you’re going through drug treatment and you suddenly have to move, it’s terribly disruptive and threatening,” he said. Dr. Frumkin was not involved in the new report but was a co-author of previous editions.

Over the years, health experts involved in this project have conducted more research into the continued use of fossil fuels as the root cause of health problems.

“The diagnosis made in this report is very clear,” said Dr. Salas. “Further expansion of fossil fuels is reckless and the data clearly shows that it threatens the health and well-being of every person. »

The researchers point out that health systems and other societal infrastructure on which health care depends have not adapted quickly enough to our current level of global warming.

“If we didn’t get through this today, there’s a good chance we won’t get through this in the future,” Dr. Romanello said.

The report will likely be discussed at the annual United Nations climate summit in the United Arab Emirates which begins in a few weeks. This year, the summit will place greater emphasis on human health.

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