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Green Spaces Lessen the Health Costs of Climate Change

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Lumpini Park Green Space, Bangkok

Climate change threatens human health

"Climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow." “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment," GlobalChange.gov

Looking towards 2021, here at Living Deep, we are hoping for a fresh start -- particularly when it comes to human health. However, this much-desired “fresh start” lives in the shadow of the many health costs of climate change. 2020 may have made us more aware of the impacts of our environment -- our homes and public spaces -- on our health than ever before. However, much remains to be done -- as demonstrated in the many US public health issues laid bare in recent months. COVID-19 revealed the many exposed and underdeveloped elements of our health care system -- from ICU capacity to testing cost and availability. The United States Supreme Court argued over the Affordable Care Act and several justices discussed striking down Roe v. Wade. The pandemic also underscored the shocking and endemic disparities in health care treatment between white Americans and those in minority communities. These disparities are particularly evident within the Black community, and their impacts are particularly harmful towards Black women.

Finally, conversations about coronavirus vaccines have once more revealed the skepticism many have regarding clinical research and roll-outs of quick-to-market medical products and treatments. Women and people of color have been especially harmed in the past when medical products were either inappropriately applied or approved without rigorous testing. Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Latinx Americans remain skeptical due to historic examples of government-approved medical experimentation on their communities. In the past, these experiments were conducted in such communities in the United States and in neighboring Canada. Despite -- or perhaps in light of -- the many horrors this year, the very real and terrifying fact remains that climate change poses one of the most significant human health risks -- from displacement due to destruction of farm- and livable land to the disastrous effects of high heat exposure to the body and brain. Follow below to learn more about the many health costs posed by climate change in urban areas.

The Many Health Costs of Climate Change

Extreme heat events can be fatal

"Extreme heat events can be dangerous to health – even fatal. These events result in increased hospital admissions for heat- related illness, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. Extreme heat events can trigger a variety of heat stress conditions, such as heat stroke." "Extreme Heat Can Impact Our Health in Many Ways," CDC

As those who live in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore and other urban areas in the United States know, summers can be insufferable. The heat of summer months feels trapped in these urban environments -- barely dissipating even during the evening hours of particularly sweltering days. There are many physical health dangers of repeated or prolonged high heat exposure. The CDC and NIOSH brief on “Heat Stress” notes that “exposure to extreme heat can result in...heat...exhaustion...cramps, or heat rashes.” New respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and injuries can also arise and pre-existing issues can be compounded by high heat exposure. However, the public health dangers associated with repeated high heat exposure in “heat islands” are not solely physical. The health costs of climate change -- particularly in urban areas -- include a number of mental health threats.

High Heat Exposure in Concrete Jungles Burdens Mental Health

Heat is hard on human bodies

"'Heat is hard on human beings. Extreme temperatures are hard on human beings. The particular vulnerability is if you're taking psychiatric medicines, that can actually make the condition higher risk for you.'"  Ken Duckworth, medical director of the NAMI, quoted by Nora Eckart in her broadcast "How High Heat Can Impact Mental Health" for NPR

In a 4 September 2019 broadcast for NPR, Nora Eckert addressed the ways in which high heat in urban areas can impact mental health. Eckert interviewed Ken Duckworth -- medical director of the NAMI -- in order to flesh out the relationship between such issues and high heat. Duckworth explained that heat can be dangerous for those suffering from mental illness because extreme heat reduces the body’s ability to regulate temperature. This is harmful to mental health because -- notes Duckworth -- many prescribed medications already “interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature.” When combined with high heat in a person’s surrounding environment, this can lead “to dehydration or heat stroke" as well as medication instability. Other issues occur more readily in individuals taking mental health medication because extreme heat can negate the effects of psychiatric medication on the brain. 

Emergency calls increase during heat events

"Emergency response calls relating to psychiatric conditions increased nearly 40% in Baltimore in the summer of 2018 when the heat index spiked above 103." Nora Eckart referencing data from the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism in her broadcast "How High Heat Can Impact Mental Health" for NPR

Eckert writes that “the combination of heat and prescription medicines [may] ramp up...symptoms.” Data collected by the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism backs up the connection between mental health crises and high heat exposure. Eckert references the Howard Center’s analysis in her broadcast. She notes that the Center found “emergency response calls relating to psychiatric conditions increased nearly 40% in Baltimore in the summer of 2018." During this period, "the heat index spiked above 103.” Furthermore, the extreme mental stress wrought by high temperatures can lead to abuses of substances. According to Eckert, “the Howard Center found calls relating to substance abuse more than doubled during dangerous heat in the summer of 2018.”

Effects of Pollution Worsen in High Heat

Effects of Pollution Worsen in High Heat

"Heat waves often lead to poor air quality. The extreme heat and stagnant air during a heat wave increases the amount of ozone pollution and particulate pollution." "How Weather Affects Air Quality," UCAR

Clearly, high heat exposure in urban areas can worsen pre-existing medical issues -- both mental and physical. Unfortunately, extreme heat events caused by climate change can also compound other environmental issues like pollution. Time writer Bryan Walsh explains the connection between poor air quality and high heat in his article “Why Bad Heat = Bad Air” from 2011. Both chemical and particulate pollution worsen in high heat, Walsh notes. For example, ozone-related smog increases and becomes a significant public health issue in urban areas during extreme heat events. This is because smog “is formed when...pollution from vehicles, power plants and other combustion combine in sunlight and heat.” 

The more sunlight and heat there is at any given time, the more ozone will hover in the air above ground level. This higher concentration of ground-level ozone negatively impacts those breathing in the surrounding air. Ground-level ozone is particularly dangerous for children, the elderly and those suffering from respiratory diseases. In their brief “Ground-level Ozone Pollution,” the EPA notes that “breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems” in humans. These include “chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and airway inflammation.” Lung function can also be reduced by ozone exposure and pre-existing conditions like “bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma” often worsen. The WHO -- World Health Organization -- estimates that air pollution already “kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year.” As the number of days with temperatures in extreme heat ranges increase, the effects of pollution are expected to increase as well.

How Green Spaces Can Help Lessen the Health Costs of Climate Change

Green spaces are associated with more physical activity

"Green spaces are associated with more physical activity, physical or mental restoration and reduced stress, higher social capital, and ecosystem services, such as better air quality, less traffic noise, less heat-island effects, and more biodiversity." "Green spaces and mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies," David Rojas-Rueda, PhD, et. al, 2019, The Lancet Planetary Health

The inclusion of green spaces in urban areas has been proven to positively affect a number of public health issues. These range from reactions to pollution to struggles with mental health difficulties. Their positive impacts have been recorded in studies published by NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and Science Focus -- among many others. 

Green Spaces Improve Mental Health

For instance, a 2019 study conducted by Kristine Engemann, Carsten Bøcker Pedersen and colleagues at Uppsala University in Sweden noted the benefits. Their research found that “residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood.” Engemann writes “living at the lowest levels of green space...was associated with 15 to 55% higher risk” of developing a psychiatric disorder. Engemann et. al explain that exposure to green spaces can “enhance psychological restoration [and] can affect brain structure through positive associations with amygdala integrity." It can also "mitigate negative effects from the socially dense and noisy city environment that heighten stress.”

However, the mental health benefits offered by green spaces are not solely relegated to children and adolescents. Mike Rogerson and Jo Barton explain the “importance of greenspace for mental health” for adults in a paper for The British Journal of Psychiatry. Rogerson and Barton write that “green spaces provide vital health services as well as environmental services.” Green spaces are “equigenic,” the two argue, meaning that they reduce “socioeconomic health inequalities” by “facilitating activity and promoting better mental health and well-being.” Green spaces in urban environments have been proven to reduce stress in adults, improve focus and productivity and encourage exercise. Each of these outcomes can aid in reducing the development and effects of mental health issues. 

Impacts of Green Spaces on Physical Health

we could capture about 205 gigatons of carbon

"By planting more than a half trillion trees, the authors say, we could capture about 205 gigatons of carbon, reducing atmospheric carbon by about 25 percent." "Examining the Viability of Planting Trees to Help Mitigate Climate Change," Alan Buis, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Certain trees, shrubs and other plants in green spaces can reduce the concentrations of pollution in ambient air. They can also affect surface temperature in urban areas by offering cooling shade. The EPA actually recommends expanding green spaces in urban areas -- particularly within heat islands -- in order to reduce extreme heat. In their brief “Using Trees and Vegetation to Reduce Heat Islands,” the EPA explain two ways in which trees reduce surface and air temperatures. They reduce heat by "providing shade and through evapotranspiration.” Shaded areas can be “20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials.” Evapotranspiration -- during which water from land and soil is released back into the atmosphere by plants --can also “reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F (1–5°C).” 

In their January 2020 article for Education in Chemistry, Hayley Bennett and Kristy Turner explain how trees in green spaces clean surrounding air. Turner and Bennett write that “trees play an important role in dispersing and removing pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) from the atmosphere.” They also slow the progression and reduce the impacts of climate change, the two explain. Currently, it is believed that “forests may absorb and store as much as 30% of the carbon emissions from human activities.” Not only do trees reduce the concentration of gaseous pollutants in urban areas, but they also affect particulate pollutants. They “reduce the effects of PM” by taking up “some of the very smallest particles through their stomata.” They reduce the effects of larger particles by dispersing them or by acting “as a surface for the particles to deposit on.” Both methods prevent humans from inhaling a higher concentration of these harmful pollutants. 

Improving Access to Green Spaces

Climate change is disproportionately affecting the poor and minorities

"Climate change is disproportionately affecting the poor and minorities in the United States - a 'climate gap' that will grow in coming decades unless policymakers intervene." "Climate Change Hits Poor Hardest in U.S.," Douglas Fischer, Scientific American

Clearly, green spaces lessen the health impacts of climate change and other harmful human activities in a number of ways. Unfortunately, a significant number of Americans lack adequate access to green spaces. In fact -- note Adie Tomer and Joseph W. Kane in their article for The Avenue -- “a third of Americans in the 100 largest cities are more than a 10-minute walk from a park.” explain that -- with the majority of green spaces in suburban areas -- “metropolitan areas need regional plans to bring parks closer to all residents.” In order to truly reap the health benefits of green spaces nationwide, Americans must advocate for equal access across all demographics. Julia Drachman and Living Deep Cofounder Jason F. McLennan distill this into its simplest terms in their feature article “Biophilic Design: A New Scale Emerges” for Volume 1, Issue 2 of Love + Regeneration. Put perfectly simply, “we are meant to engage with the natural world for the health and benefit of our bodies, our minds and our communities,” write McLennan and Drachman. Just like water and clean air, “access to nature...must be recognized as a basic human right.”

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