Extreme Weather Events in 2013 Put Americans' Health at Risk

2013 rained down another round of extreme weather events on communities across the country. Destructive floods in Colorado, months of prolonged drought in Texas and California, and dangerously high temperatures in the Northeast were just some of the record-breaking events from the year. The media reported on many of these disasters. But they often missed a key dimension of the story: climate change is also a disaster for our health.

In fact, climate change is “one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation,” according to Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. Children, the elderly, and communities struggling with poverty are among the most vulnerable to climate-related illness and disease. Yet they are not the only ones. The extreme weather events of 2013 revealed once again that many of us live in harm’s way. Intense heat is one of the biggest threats. NOAA and NASA say that 2013 was one of the 10 top hottest years ever worldwide. 

Many of us felt the heat in our hometowns. Cities around the nation had their hottest July on record, including Hartford, Salt Lake City, and Reno. Medical experts have long known that extreme heat kills more Americans each year, on average, than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and lightning combined. One particularly potent mid-July heat wave held more than two-thirds of the country in the grip of above-normal heat, and broke more than 600 daily temperature records. Heat isn’t just an inconvenience: it can be lethal.

The high temperatures in 2013 took their toll. At an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, more than 200 people had to be treated for nausea, vomiting, and fatigue brought on by the heat. From California to New Jersey, officials scrambled to open cooling centers during the July heat wave. And in New England, the Environmental Protection Agency warned that hot temperatures were making air pollution worse—raising the chance of people suffering from asthma attacks, respiratory illness, and heart attacks.

And now, climate change is increasing the odds of extreme summer heat. The odds of having 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. These trends are expected to continue. A study by researchers at Columbia University predicted that heat-related deaths in New York City could rise 20 percent by the 2020s, and nearly double by the 2080s.

Climate change affects another health hazard: insect-borne diseases like dengue fever, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease. As summers become hotter, disease-carrying insects become more active for longer stretches. Those critters can move into new areas farther north that are becoming more hospitable to these insects as climate warms. Weather extremes can create situations in which disease-carrying insects flourish near humans. Those long, hot, dry summers peppered by drenching rains can heighten human/insect contact.

This summer, insects in the Southeast had plenty of water to breed in. Florida, for instance, had its wettest July on record. That same month, a community near Palm Beach had a dengue outbreak. The illness had been eradicated in Florida for about 70 years, and then outbreaks occurred in 2009 and 2010, and now 2013. Doctors and scientists are still trying to understand the resurgence, but meanwhile the risk remains.

Heat and drought contribute to wildfire risks and their health-harming smoke. In June alone, flames consumed roughly 1.2 million acres. Colorado experienced its most destructive wildfire on record in 2013, and residents lost more than 500 homes. Smoke from fires can pose a health risk to people living far beyond the blaze. Climate change is going to make matters worse. This October, NRDC released a report that looked at data from the 2011 wildfire season and found that two-thirds of Americans—nearly 212 million people—lived in counties affected by smoky skies. Wildfire smoke exposures have been linked to increased rates of asthma attacks, pneumonia, and more serious chronic lung diseases.

Like smoke from distant fires, climate change is making its presence known in towns and cities across the nation, and leaving millions of us exposed to serious health threats. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can protect our families from these health risks. We start by making it a top priority to prepare our homes and our communities to be more resilient and better prepared to face the extreme events that happen. At the same time, we take a giant step to limit the worst of those events, by reducing the heat-trapping carbon pollution that causes climate change. Click here to tell President Obama to set limits on our nation’s largest source of carbon pollution—power plants. It’s just what the doctor ordered.