Impact of Climate Change on Human Bodily Systems

Beyond the impact it has on the planet, climate change has been shown to have multiple, negative effects on the human body, damaging each body system in specific ways. Click on the different systems below to find out more.
  • Many studies have found that heart related emergencies have increased during periods of extreme heat. As global temperatures rise, this might mean a rise in emergent heart disease (1)

  • A 2019 study showed that the burden global warming will have on heart health warrants the need for public and environmental change initiated by governments (2)

  • Canadian deaths from heart attacks and strokes show strong seasonal fluctuations, with peaks in both summer and winter, suggesting influences from weather and climatic changes (3)

1. De Blois J, Kjellstrom T, Agewall S, Ezekowitz JA, Armstrong PW, Atar D. The effects of climate change on cardiac health. Cardiology. 2015;131(4):209-17.

2. Huang J, Zeng Q, Pan X, Guo X, Li G. Projections of the effects of global warming on the disease burden of ischemic heart disease in the elderly in Tianjin, China. BMC public health. 2019 Dec 1;19(1):1465.

3. World Health Organization (2000): Climate change and human health: impact and adaptation; Document WHO/SDE/OEH/004, Geneva and Rome, 48 p.

Circulatory System

 
  • Climate-related increases in sea surface temperature and sea level can lead to higher incidence of water-borne infectious and toxin-related illnesses, such as cholera and shellfish poisoning (1)

  • Climate change induced increases in rainfall are expected to flush bacteria and pathogens into recreational bodies of water which will increase the incidence of GI-related infections; this is expected to be prominent in the Great Lakes region (2)

  • Hotter, more humid summers are predicted to increase the number of temperature dependent food borne illnesses like Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus and clostridium difficile. This is particularly concerning for Indigenous populations because raw meat is a common traditional food for some communities (3)

  • In 2006, melted sea ice resulted in abnormal migration and impaired walrus hunting. This posed a large issue for certain Inuit communities, especially elders who have traditionally consumed the meat that is high in vitamin A and protein. Similar events in the future could likely lead to food insecurities (4)

  • Food poisoning from contamination of other imported foods may increase as rising air temperatures allow microbes to multiply more quickly (5)

  • Researchers have determined that more than 50% of waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States between 1948 and 1994 were preceded by extreme precipitation events (6)

  • Elevated atmospheric CO2 is anticipated to widen the disparity in protein intake within countries, with plant-based diets being the most valuable (7)

  • When cultivated at elevated CO2 levels, staple food crops that are primary sources of dietary protein for many countries, such as potatoes, barley, rice, and whea, have shown to have reduced protein content (8)

1. Patz JA, Epstein PR, Burke TA, Balbus JM. Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases. JAMA. 1996;275(3):217–223. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530270057032

2. Patz JA, Vavrus SJ, Uejio CK, McLellan SL. Climate change and waterborne disease risk in the Great Lakes region of the US. American journal of preventive medicine. 2008 Nov 1;35(5):451-8.

3. Ford JD, Berrang-Ford L, King M, Furgal C. Vulnerability of Aboriginal health systems in Canada to climate change. Global Environmental Change. 2010 Oct 1;20(4):668-80.

4. Ford JD. Vulnerability of Inuit food systems to food insecurity as a consequence of climate change: a case study from Igloolik, Nunavut. Regional Environmental Change. 2009 Jun 1;9(2):83-100.

5. Bentham, G. and Langford, I.H. (1995): Climate change and the incidence of food poisoning in England and Wales; International Journal of Biometeorology, v. 39, no. 2, p. 81–86.

6. Curriero F.C., Patz, J.A., Rose, J.B. and Lele, S. (2001): The association between extreme precipitation and waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States, 1948–1994; American Journal of Public Health, v. 91, no. 8, p. 1194–1199.

7. Anderko, L., Chalupka, S., Du, M. et al. Climate changes reproductive and children’s health: a review of risks, exposures, and impacts. Pediatr Res 87, 414–419 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-019-0654-7

8. Myers, S. S. et al. Climate change and global food systems: potential impacts on food security and undernutrition. Annu. Rev. Public Health 38, 259–277 (2017).

Digestive System

 
  • Lead pollution from smelters, battery companies, irrigation wells, and/or motor engines can be absorbed into the body (1); once these pollutants enter the body, lead has been found to disrupt many hormone production pathways, including those important for reproduction, growth and thyroid function (1)

  • Human migration and damage to health infrastructures from the projected increase in climate variability could indirectly contribute to disease transmission (2)

  • In Canada, increased heavy rainfalls are predicted to cause an outbreak of infectious diseases such as cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis (‘beaver fever’) (3)

  • Warmer climates could enhance the prevalence of food-borne diseases from enteric bacteria and viruses, favour the northward spread of mosquitoes and ticks capable of transmitting disease (e.g. dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria), and increase the number of disease-carrying rodents and their contact with humans (3)

1. Doumouchtsis KK, Doumouchtsis SK, Doumouchtsis EK, Perrea DN. The effect of lead intoxication on endocrine functions. Journal of endocrinological investigation. 2009 Feb 1;32(2):175-83.

2. Patz JA, Epstein PR, Burke TA, Balbus JM. Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases. JAMA. 1996;275(3):217–223. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530270057032

3. World Health Organization (2000): Climate change and human health: impact and adaptation; Document WHO/SDE/OEH/004, Geneva and Rome, 48 p.

Endocrine System

 
  • Human susceptibility to infections might be compounded by malnutrition due to climate stress on agriculture and potential alterations in the human immune system caused by increased flux of ultraviolet radiation (1)

  • Heat stroke is associated in some cases with the development of acute kidney disease. Increases in heat waves world wide may, therefore, result in an increase in acute kidney damage as a direct response to dehydration (2)

  • Chronic kidney disease has been found to be more common amongst individuals who do physical work in very hot regions. This indicates that individuals that are of lower socio-economic status in very hot countries may be at higher risk of chronic kidney disease because of the nature of their work (2)

  • Living in higher temperatures has also been associated with the development of kidney stones. Researchers believe this may be due to dehydration and the stress that heat puts on the human body (2)

1. Patz JA, Epstein PR, Burke TA, Balbus JM. Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases. JAMA. 1996;275(3):217–223. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530270057032

2. Johnson RJ, Sánchez-Lozada LG, Newman LS, Lanaspa MA, Diaz HF, Lemery J, Rodriguez-Iturbe B, Tolan DR, Butler-Dawson J, Sato Y, Garcia G, Hernand AA, Roncal-Jimenez CA. Climate Change and the Kidney. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2019;74(3):38-44.

Excretory System

 

Integumentary System

  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is expected to rise in the future, leading to an increase in temporary skin damage (e.g. sunburn), eye damage (e.g. cataracts) and rates of skin cancer (1)

  • More cases of cercarial dermatitis or swimmer's itch, a rash caused by parasitic worms that live in freshwater, has been reported as the larvae have expanded their habitat and peak season due to changing climates (2)

  • Many researchers believe increasing temperatures are the cause, at least in part, for the spread of lyme disease throughout Europe and North America. Lyme disease is carried by ticks and easily identifiable by a bull’s-eye like rash (2)

1. Walter, S.D., King, W.D. and Marrett, L.D. (1999): Association of cutaneous malignant melanoma with intermittent exposure to ultraviolet radiation: results of a case-control study in Ontario, Canada; International Journal of Epidemiology, v. 28, no. 3, p. 418–427.

2. Kaffenberger BH, Shetlar D, Norton SA, Rosenbach M. The effect of climate change on skin disease in North America. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2017 Jan 1;76(1):140-7.

 

Nervous System

  • Gradual and cumulative losses in the physical environment can also invoke complex grief responses due to the various personal and collective meanings attached to them (1)

    • For example, research with the five Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, Canada, identified that many Inuit experienced ecological grief related to changes witnessed on their land

  • Climate change can disrupt a coherent sense of self due to its physical impacts on landscapes, seasonal weather patterns and ecosystems (1)

    • For example, various Australian farming groups have reported that they have lost confidence in the seasonal rhythms of the weather 

  • A deep form of anticipatory grief has been documented among reindeer herders in Northern Sweden, who are fearful that their way of life may disappear (1)

    • Anticipatory grief involves the normal psychological and physical response that occurs when an individual is expecting a negative/traumatic event to occur (includes all thinking, feeling, cultural, physical, and social reactions associated with grief) (2)

  • Direct correlation between increased temperatures and acts of aggressive behaviour in various populations (3)

  • In one US study, uncomfortably warm temperatures increased participants’ feelings of anger and hostility and over all, incidences of violent crime were significantly higher throughout warm summer months (4)

  • Temperature changes can affect gene expression in neurons, neuron structure, and has the potential to impact brain organization overall (5)

  • Developmental changes in neural systems are likely to impact behaviour and directly lead to heat-related stress and mortality (6)

  • Climate change-associated abiotic environment changes can impact the performance of sensory and other cognitive systems (7)

  • Directional change in abiotic parameters (ie. higher temperatures, altered seasonality, marine acidification) can have direct effects on nervous system development and performance, thereby have an effect on behavior (7)

1. Cunsolo, A., Ellis, N.R. Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Clim Change 8, 275–281 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2

2. Reser, J. P., & Swim, J. K. (2011). Adapting to and coping with the threat and impacts of climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4), 277–289. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023412

3. Berry HL, Bowen K, Kjellstrom T. Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. International journal of public health. 2010 Apr 1;55(2):123-32.

4. Anderson, Craig & Delisi, Matt. (2011). Implications of Global Climate Change for Violence in Developed and Developing Countries. Social conflict and aggression. 

5. Groh C, Tautz J, Roessler W (2004) Synaptic organization in the adult honey-bee brain is influenced by brood-temperature control during pupal development. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 101(12):4268–4273. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0400773101

6. Tewksbury JJ, Huey RB, Deutsch CA (2008) Putting the heat on tropical animals. Science 320(5881):1296–1297. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1159328

7. O’Donnell, S . The neurobiology of climate change. Science of Nature. 2018; (105):11https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-017-1538-5 

 

Reproductive System

  • Increased prevalence of low birth weights in certain regions are thought to be associated with the rise in global temperatures (1)

  • Maternal malnutrition can lead to low birth weight, morbidity, and mortality (2)

  • Lead pollution from smelters, battery companies, irrigation wells, and/or motor engines can be absorbed into the body (3)

  • Once these pollutants enter the body, lead has been found to disrupt many hormone production pathways, including those important for reproduction, growth and thyroid function (3)

  • According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 88% of the existing global burden of diseases attributable to climate change occurs in children less than 5 years old (2)

  • Climate change has been shown to have negative cardiovascular consequences to the fetus and to young children (2)

  • There is a direct association between maternal heat exposure during early pregnancy and in increased odds of congenital heart defects (2)

1. Anderko L, Chalupka S, Du M, Hauptman M. Climate changes reproductive and children’s health: a review of risks, exposures, and impacts. Pediatric research. 2019 Nov 15:1-8.

2. Anderko, L., Chalupka, S., Du, M. et al. Climate changes reproductive and children’s health: a review of risks, exposures, and impacts. Pediatr Res 87, 414–419 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-019-0654-7

3. Doumouchtsis KK, Doumouchtsis SK, Doumouchtsis EK, Perrea DN. The effect of lead intoxication on endocrine functions. Journal of endocrinological investigation. 2009 Feb 1;32(2):175-83.

 

Respiratory System

  • The monthly number of deaths in Canada tends to reach a low in August, then rises to a peak in January and declines again during the spring and summer months. Many of the winter deaths result from pneumonia, suggesting that seasonal changes in weather and climatic conditions influence respiratory infections (1)

  • Concentrations of ground-level ozone (a pollutant that irritates the lungs and makes breathing difficult) are expected to increase over mid-latitudes (1)

  • Smog episodes are projected to increase during summer months (1)

  • Particulates in forest fire smoke can irritate the respiratory tract when they are inhaled (1)

  • Alkali dust emissions, resulting from wind erosion of dried salt lake beds, have caused nasal, throat, respiratory and eye problems for some rural residents on the southern Prairies and are expected to increase in coming years (1)

  • Individuals who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more likely to die as a result of global warming; COPD is thought to affect 9.5% of Canadians (2)

  • Stormy winds may increase airborne concentrations of fungal spores, which have been shown to trigger asthma attacks (3)

1. World Health Organization (2000): Climate change and human health: impact and adaptation; Document WHO/SDE/OEH/004, Geneva and Rome, 48 p.

2. Doucet M, Rochette L, Hamel D. Incidence, prevalence, and mortality trends in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease over 2001 to 2011: a public health point of view of the burden. Canadian respiratory journal. 2016;2016.

 

3. Dales, R.E.; Cakmak, S., Judek, S., Dann, T., Coates, F., Brook, J.R. and Burnett, R.T. (2003): The role of fungal spores in thunderstorm asthma; Chest, v. 123, p. 745–750.

 

Skeletal System

  • Due to increased severe weather conditions and changes, and the lack of infrastructure needed to support physical activities - For example, Northern senior populations are having increased difficulty getting around their communities (1)

1. Epstein PR. Climate change and human health. New England Journal of Medicine. 2005 Oct 6;353(14):1433-6

 
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