President Barack Obama's speech last week laying out his climate action plan gratified public health advocates worried about the harmful effects of climate change on child and adult asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases, heart disease, diabetes, and other air- and heat-related conditions, as well as water-borne and insect-borne diseases.
The president's plan calls for a cut in greenhouse-gas emissions, with new carbon dioxide standards for power plants, the country's greatest producer of carbon pollution, as well as money pledged toward the development of clean energy.
“Implementing new power plant rules could prevent countless premature deaths, heart attacks and cases of chronic bronchitis, reduce co-pollutants and slow hospital utilization rates that contribute to rising health care costs,” American Public Health Association Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin said in a statement. He called the implementation of such standards “the difference between a long, healthy life or debilitating, expensive chronic illness for hundreds of thousands of American children and adults.”
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says 25 million Americans, including more than 7 million children, have asthma, while 50 million Americans have allergies. Those asthma and allergy numbers are significantly higher than they were just a little over a decade ago. In 2001, about 20 million people in the U.S. had asthma. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of Americans with asthma rose by 25%, from about 1 in 14 people to 1 in 12. And although it is difficult for experts to pinpoint exactly why these rates have risen, it is widely agreed upon that increased air pollution and allergens worsen the symptoms for those with asthma and allergies.
Young children and the elderly, those living in urban environments and low-income populations tend to be more susceptible to heat and respiratory illnesses. In 2009, about 1 in 10 children had asthma, and the following year, 3 in 5 children with asthma experienced at least one asthma attack in the previous 12 months.
Increasing heat waves, droughts and wildfires thought to be related to climate change also contribute to health problems. Wildfires are currently burning in California, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Hawaii and Alaska, where temperatures peaked at a near-record 91 degrees last week.