The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health sponsors National Women’s Health week to “empower women to make their health a priority.” Here at Moms Clean Air Force, we know it is just as important to showcase the ways air pollution and climate change affect women’s health. We can’t be empowered unless we understand the serious consequences we face. Please read this summary of health impacts and share it widely with your mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, nieces, neighbors and friends:
Asthma and Other Respiratory Problems: Dirty air and climate change make it harder for women to breathe. Ground-level ozone forms from chemical reactions between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the presence of sunlight. Major sources of VOCs and NOx are motor vehicle exhaust, emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels, natural gas operations, and chemical solvents, none of which are adequately regulated to limit our exposure to them. With climate change, smoggy air is increasing, and that’s dangerous. Smog irritates the lungs and can trigger asthma attacks. It can also cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and lung infections. In addition to asthma, smog is linked to premature mortality, heart failure, lung failure, and increased hospital and emergency room admissions. This excellent infographic explains how susceptible we are to smog.
Pregnancy Threats: Burning coal is one of the biggest drivers of global climate change. Relative to other energy sources, coal is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, a direct cause of climate change. But that’s not all. Coal combustion emits pollutants that contribute to ground level ozone, which, in addition to exacerbating asthma, can interfere with normal lung development. Plus, burning coal emits mercury, which then precipitates into the streams and lakes and contaminate tuna and other fish we eat. Mercury can harm brain development and is particularly risky for pregnant women and children.
Poison Ivy: Poison ivy, and its equally annoying cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, are spreading faster, and becoming more toxic in response to higher temperatures linked to climate change. With greenhouse gases are on the rise, poison ivy is likely to get worse in the coming years.
Allergies: More than half of Americans have at least one allergy, and that can make life miserable. If you’re lucky, you’ll “just” have a runny nose or itchy eyes; otherwise you may be among those who account for more than 13 million allergy-related hospital visits every year. Climate change is really bad news for allergy sufferers, as higher temperatures and changing weather patterns are causing pollen-producing plants to generate more pollen over longer periods of time. Pollen season has already lengthened by 2 weeks since 1995.
Mosquito Bites, Dengue Fever, Lyme Disease: As Doug Inkley of National Wildlife Federation cites, extreme weather is becoming more common. Droughts and floods are more severe and more frequent. Winter snow is melting away earlier in the spring and fall weather is slower and slower to come about. None of this bodes well for women’s health. Longer Indian Summers, says Inkley, help winter ticks survive in huge numbers, making a walk in the woods or even time gardening in your yard more treacherous, given the ease with which ticks transmit Lyme disease. Warm winters put out a “welcome mat for fire ants and deer ticks to expand their range northward where they can inflict pain or disease on unsuspecting people and wildlife.” Also on the rise are Asian tiger mosquitoes, known to transmit more than 30 different viruses, including West Nile, eastern equine encephalitis, dengue, and chikungunya, all of which pose serious human health risks.
Heart Disease: Almost 300,000 women die each year from heart disease – more women by far than from all forms of cancer combined. How is that connected to air pollution? When we inhale the fine particles that make up air pollution, our central nervous system elevates our heartbeat and increases blood pressure. Tiny polluting particles lodging deep in the lungs can inflame the vascular system. That inflammation can increase the thickness of arteries over time, and cause the blood vessels to narrow, leading to heart attacks, stroke, and other problems.
Breathing dirty air harms our hearts both right away and over the long term. Sudden air pollution spikes send people pouring into hospital emergency rooms, especially the elderly, those already suffering from heart disease, and other sick people. Longer-term exposure to fine particles (over the course of years instead of days) can shave months to years off of life expectancy in highly-exposed populations. In fact, the American Heart Association reports that long-term exposure can increase the relative risk of death specifically from cardiovascular disease anywhere from 3% to 76%. Even a 3% increase in risk of the leading cause of death has huge public health implications, and that’s at the lower end of what experts estimate. “In matters of the heart there is no safe level of particle pollution. This means that even after meeting federal guidelines for particle pollution and ozone, communities can reap health benefits by continuing to reduce pollution.”
Security: A report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) found that “women are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental changes.” The statistics are startling. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during natural disasters (like heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes — all of which are direct consequences of climate change). Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, predominantly affected African-American women, who were already the region’s poorest, most disadvantaged community. An estimated 87% of unmarried women and almost 100% of married women lost their livelihoods when a cyclone hit the Ayerwaddy Delta in Myanmar in 2008.
Being a Mom: What about the illnesses we contend with as moms? Don’t miss our excellent guide to climate change and children’s health. Kids are even more susceptible to the insects, infections, allergies, diseases and natural disasters associated with climate change than are adults.
As the saying goes, being forewarned is forearmed. But knowing how climate change and dirty air make us sick is just the first step.
Here are three ways you can make a difference:
- Sign a Petition.
- Participate in a Mama Summit.
- Join us in Washington, DC for a Play-In for Climate Action.