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Scientific American: ‘What Climate Change Does to the Human Body’ – Doctor: ‘In my own practice, I explain to patients how the climate crisis affects their health’

Dr. Neelu Tummala, Climate advocate and ENT doctor with George Washington Medical Faculty Associates

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

h/t Dr. Willie Soon; Dr. Neelu Tummala, MD claims she can see the effects of climate change increasingly impacting the bodies of her patients.

What Climate Change Does to the Human Body

An ENT physician sees the effects in her patients all the time

By Neelu Tummala on August 29, 2020

I vividly remember a patient who came in late for her appointment during a July heat wave. When I walked in, she said, “I’m so sorry I’m late, I was up all night walking my grandbaby around the train station.” Without air conditioning at home, the child was sweating through her clothes in the heat of the night, putting her at risk for dehydration.

Heat affects every part of our body. It can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, anxiety, impaired cognitive function and even premature death from heart and lung disease. Across the country, the health concerns of the climate crisis are increasingly being recognized, pushing thousands of medical providers—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists, medical students—to become advocates for change.

In my own practice, I explain to patients how the climate crisis affects their health. For example, apart from contributing to global warming, rising carbon dioxide levels increase the amount of pollen that plants produce as a consequence of higher rates of photosynthesis. This rise in pollen levels can lead to worsening allergy symptoms. Another example is fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5) associated with air pollution, much of it linked to the burning of fossil fuels that help drive the warming. When we breathe in these particles, they travel down the airway and settle in the tiny air sacs called alveoli of the lungs, causing inflammation and potentially worsening asthma symptoms. The explanations are simple, but the health risks are widespread and complex. Ground-level ozone pollution, which is worse in hotter weather, can also harm people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Climate action is required of our elected leaders, and we must mandate it of ourselves. It can be as simple as educating family and friends, while making sustainable shopping and traveling choices.

Neelu Tummala, M.D., is an ENT doctor with George Washington Medical Faculty Associates and a climate advocate with a special interest in the intersection of climate and health. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Follow her on Twitter @NeeluTummala.

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Eric Worrall comments: 

As someone who suffers severe asthma I am outraged when a doctor lends the weight of their professional qualifications to such sweeping and in my opinion grossly misleading generalizations.

Warmer temperatures would help many asthmatics. Different asthmatics have different triggers. My biggest trigger is dry cold winter air mixed with smoke emitted by people trying to keep warm, which is one of the main reasons I moved to the edge of the tropics. Warm, moist tropical air for me is just like one of those steam vaporiser masks, it helps control my symptoms. No matter how extreme the heatwave I do just fine, so long as the air is humid.

Humans have far greater capacity to handle heat than most people realize. Our ancestors evolved in the extreme tropics, many anthropologists believe our ancestors survived by persistence hunting, using our superior ability to handle extreme tropical heat to run prey into the ground – a tradition still practiced by some remote tribes. Anywhere outside the extreme tropical zone where we evolved, we have to wear clothes to stay warm. If you feel too warm, give your body’s superb heat management system a chance, drink lots of water and remove items of your cold climate clothes until you feel comfortable.

I have no doubt Dr. Tummala sometimes sees patients suffering heat stress or suffering the effects of pollution triggered asthma. But to blame all this on climate change, and to suggest a warming planet would be certain to make it worse is just absurd.