Climate change is affecting Wisconsinites’ health, new UW study finds
Wisconsin’s future may be warm, wet, and insect-ridden, a new climate change study released by University of Wisconsin researchers finds.
Written by researchers with UW’s Global Health Institute and Department of Life Sciences Communication, the report identified several unique threats to the health of Wisconsinites brought on by climate change.
Director of the Global Health Institute and author on the study Jonathan Patz said in a panel with health professionals about the report Tuesday night that experts have known about climate change’s health impacts for a while, but the situation has become increasingly urgent as experts gain a better understanding of the crisis.
“I think it’s the largest environmental public health challenge of our times … there are major opportunities for health in solving the climate crisis,” Patz said. “To get to a clean energy economy offers amazing health benefits.”
The authors of the report identified several key impacts climate change has — flooding, extreme heat, and an increase in infectious disease.
Wisconsin in particular has seen increased flooding in the past few years, according to the report, and Patz said this will only continue. Flooding can lead to dangerous algal blooms, drinking water contamination through waste runoff, and more.
Similarly, increasing temperature trends lead to hotter, wetter summers — ideal conditions for ticks and mosquitoes, which can transmit infectious diseases, according to the report.
In terms of extreme heat, the report predicted Wisconsin will see three times as many days with temperatures reaching above 105 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, which Patz said can have a variety of health impacts.
Dr. Chirantan Mukhopadhyay works in Milwaukee as an ophthalmologist, or an eye doctor. He described the potential impacts of climate on eye health.
“The eye is a very small delicate organ. It’s two centimeters, squishy, and we’re putting it in an oven. And like the rest of the human body it’s very affected by levels of heat and humidity,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Climate change puts delicate physiological components like the eye and the immune system, that often tend to be important to bodily function, at an increased risk, Mukhopadhyay said. Therefore, mitigating climate change means protecting people’s bodies.
Emergency medicine physician Dr. Caitlin Rublee pointed out that climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally. Often, low-income populations, houseless populations, incarcerated populations and others disproportionately feel these climate impacts. Rublee said it’s important to assess the resilience of health systems to make sure healthcare is accessible and ready to address climate change.
“How do we build resilient health systems and prepare now so that we are able to respond and be there for these communities?” Rublee said. “Right now the planet is sick, and … we have this opportunity to act, and it’s really exciting to be able to prescribe, essentially, health benefits for our neighbors and ourselves.”
The authors of the report also outlined how taking action against climate change now will reap benefits for Wisconsinites. Medical Director for the Kickapoo Valley Medical Clinic Dr. Joel Charles said transitioning to a clean energy economy will save an estimated 1,900 lives a year through the health system.
Charles said every day he sees his patients impacted by climate change — for example, waste runoff makes people sick, increased rainfall causes dehydration and living in areas with air pollution leads to asthma and respiratory conditions.
And these impacts aren’t equally distributed, Charles said. Communities of color produce the least amount of pollution, and yet they’re impacted the most.
“This is a justice issue,” Charles said. “If we transition away from fossil fuels, this is a major gain for equity in this country. Because if we can stop the pollution from fossil fuels, we can make major gains in creating more equity in health outcomes.”