As wildfires continue to rage through Australia — creating a scene that some have characterized as a “harbinger of the planet’s future” — researchers are looking into what effect the warming planet may have on our health. The new study, published in the journal Nature this week, represents a joint effort between researchers at Imperial College London, Columbia University and Harvard University.
In it, they theorize that a continued increase in global temperature could lead to an increase in injury deaths each year in the U.S. — specifically 1,600 additional deaths if the temperature rises 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and over 2,100 if it rises 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. An estimated 84 percent of the deaths would affect men aged 15-24, and the states most at risk of seeing the increase are California, Florida and Texas.
To conduct the study, researchers pulled from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)’s data on injury deaths in the U.S. from 1980 to 2017. In that time frame, over six million injury deaths occurred nationwide, caused by a range of accidents including accidental injuries (transportation, falls, drownings) as well as intentional ones (assaults and suicides). Over four million of those deaths occurred in men and boys.
Further research shows that both intentional and accidental injury deaths can be influenced by a change in the weather. “There are plausible behavioral and physiological pathways for a relationship between temperature and injury,” the authors write. “For example, changes in alcohol drinking, driving patterns and performance and levels of anger that motivate testing whether injury deaths are affected by temperature anomalies.”
Although it may seem plausible that warmer temperatures are conducive to good health, statistics often show the opposite. Deaths by suicide, for example, are highest each year in the spring and summer. Experts theorize that the increase in temperature may help slightly lift the weight of depression — increasing energy while simultaneously bringing suicidal thoughts to the surface. One researcher explained it this way for The Guardian, “It is a harsh irony that the partial remission, which most depression sufferers experience in the spring, often provides the boost of energy required for executing a suicide plan.”
Majid Ezzati, PhD, professor of global health at Harvard University and a lead author of the study, said in a statement that the research signals a need to prepare for future accidents. "These predictions suggest we should expect to see more deaths from transport accidents, suicides, drownings and violence as temperatures rise,” said Ezzati. “These new results show how much climate change can affect young people. We need to respond to this threat with better preparedness in terms of emergency services, social support and health warnings."
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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