As a result, the American College of Physicians (ACP) is calling for "aggressive, concerted" action to fight climate change by curbing man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Respiratory illnesses, heat stroke and infectious diseases like Zika virus, dengue fever and cholera are flourishing as global temperatures rise, said Dr. Wayne Riley, president of the college.
"Our climate is already changing and people are already being harmed. If we don't begin to address climate change, we're going to see more and more manifestations of these health problems," Riley said.
"There is clear, compelling scientific consensus that climate change is real," he added. "There is no dispute."
In the paper, published online April 18 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the ACP outlines the health problems that it says climate change is already creating:
- Respiratory illnesses, including asthma and COPD. Rising temperatures are causing an increase in ozone pollution, smoke from wildfires, and allergens produced by weeds, grasses and trees. Homes affected by heavy rains or flooding can become host to toxic mold and fungi.
- Heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which are particularly dangerous for children and the elderly.
- Insect-borne illnesses, like Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, which are ranging farther north as mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates.
- Water-borne illnesses, such as cholera, which can spread if drought causes poor sanitation or if heavy flooding causes sewer systems to overflow.
- Mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression connected to natural disasters, as well as the anxiety and stress that accompanies days of hot weather.
"Think about what happens during a heat wave," Riley said. "People's irritability and anxiety increases, starting a chain of events that can lead to behavioral health problems."
The ACP is urging its physician members to both speak out for climate change policies in their communities, and to lead the way by promoting energy efficiency in their own practices, said Bob Doherty, the ACP's senior vice president of governmental affairs and public policy.
The health care sector is ranked second-highest in energy use, after the food industry, spending about $9 billion annually on energy costs, the position paper stated. Health care systems can reduce their carbon footprint through energy conservation and efficiency, alternative energy generation, green building design, improved waste disposal and management, and water conservation, according to the paper.
"Our paper really talks about physicians being advocates in their own health systems, communities and practices to reduce carbon emissions," Doherty said. "We highlight case studies where this is already being done."
Doherty said the ACP took this stand, in part, because its members will be the ones on the front lines treating many of these climate-related illnesses. The ACP represents internists, or general practitioners who specialize in the treatment of adults.
"Many of the conditions that are likely to be worsened or caused by a warming planet are conditions that are typically seen by internists," he said.
Riley and Doherty also hope that a science-based association of physicians taking this stance will persuade those who remain skeptical of climate change.
"We're hoping the credibility of doctors speaking out will help persuade some of the doubters that this is real, and that we need to act on it," Doherty said. "Most of the public understands that when physicians speak out, they are doing it because of their moral and professional obligation to care for their patients."
Lyndsay Moseley Alexander, director of the American Lung Association's Healthy Air Campaign, said the new position paper is a "great" contribution to addressing climate change.
"I applaud the leadership of ACP," Alexander said. "Their statement underscores the urgency of the science and the importance of the medical community's role."
Climate change is actually undoing some of the progress that the United States has made reducing smog pollution in the skies over major cities, she said.
"Some communities are seeing a little bit of an uptick in ozone," Alexander said. "As climate change continues, it's going to be harder to maintain the progress we have made."
For more on climate change and human health, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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