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The climate connection: Nurses warn about effects of climate change on public health

When Katie Huffling, MS, RN, CNM, worked as nurse midwife in the Washington, D.C., area, she noticed on days with elevated pollution levels that mothers-to-be with previously controlled asthma came into her office wheezing and struggling for breath, putting themselves and the fetuses they were carrying at risk. Huffling adjusted medications and advised her patients to stay inside on bad air days, but many of them worked and didn’t have cars or even air conditioning. Staying out of the bad air wasn’t a reasonable option. She asked herself, “What can I do to help?”

Nurses and other heathcare providers around the world are seeing the effects of changing climate conditions — including increased surface ozone levels and other air pollution — on their patients and asking the same question. A report from the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, released in June, lists direct global effects of climate change, including increased heat stress, floods, drought and frequency of intense storms. Indirect threats include increases in air pollution levels (which rise on hot days), vector-born illnesses such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, food insecurity, displacement and mental health stressors.

The new normal

“As more and more [scientific data]is coming out, this is the biggest public health threat that we face today,” said Huffling, now program director for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. “Nursing is about prevention and advocacy. There are a lot of positive things we can do.”