Climate Change Is A Global Health Emergency

PIH sees repercussions for patients, most vulnerable around the world

Posted on Apr 20, 2021

Three people walk in Canyon de Chelly in Navajo Nation, where hundreds of abandoned uranium mines continue to pollute the environment.
In Navajo Nation, hundreds of abandoned uranium mines continue to pollute the environment and endanger human health. Photo by Cecille Joan Avila / Partners In Health.

Dr. Tommy Rock grew up in Navajo Nation, just miles from uranium mines where the radioactive element was once extracted for nuclear bombs. The mines have been closed for decades, ever since the end of the Cold War. But the past has a way of lingering.

In Monument Valley, Utah, where Rock still lives, reminders of that past lurk everywhere—from the air he breathes to the water he drinks. He has watched friends and family become sick from the pollution.

“It’s all personal,” says Rock, an environmental researcher and activist who has collaborated with COPE, Partners In Health’s sister organization in Navajo Nation. “My grandfather was a uranium miner and he died of cancer. I have a lot of relatives who died of cancer—they were all former uranium miners.”

Uranium mining is just one of many human activities that have contributed to climate change. The earth’s surface has warmed since the 1800s, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution—a process connected to chattel slavery and, in the U.S., the genocide and theft of land from Indigenous people. Since the 1950s, that warming has happened at an unprecedented rate due to the skyrocketing consumption of oil, natural gas, and coal, known as “fossil fuels.”

That unchecked consumption has put people and the planet in danger, drastically altering weather patterns and leading to extreme temperatures, more powerful natural disasters, and widespread pollution. As PIH has seen firsthand in its work around the world, climate change isn’t just a threat to our environment—it’s a threat to our health.

As Indigenous people around the world have always understood, our health and the health of our planet are interconnected. Our survival depends on each other. Climate change is a global health emergency.

A Health Crisis

Anushka Bhaskar used to visit Delhi, India, every year to see her grandfather. Bhaskar, formerly involved with PIH Engage, is a climate activist, Harvard student and founder of Avritah, an intersectional platform focused on health equity and environmental justice. She remembers being inspired by her grandfather as a young girl, especially by his work researching the pollution of the Ganges River and partnering with the Indian government to clean it up.

Then, unexpected news came: he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The diagnosis didn’t make sense to Bhaskar, for a man she knew to be so health-conscious that he once ate only porridge for weeks. But she had her suspicions.

“There’s a lot of pollution in India and there’s a lot of work to be done on an environmental level in Delhi, where we live,” she says. “I used to go visiting every year pre-COVID, and I would sometimes get very, very sick just from breathing in the air.”

Air pollution, worsened by extreme heat, is just one of the ways that climate change is impacting human health. As climate change intensifies, health experts warn that no clinical area will be unaffected. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is projected to cause as many as 250,000 additional deaths per year.

“The environment has such a direct impact on people’s health,” says Bhaskar. “I want future pre-meds, future doctors, future health care have this understanding that their work to improve health is so linked to environmental advocacy.”

Take malnutrition, for example—a condition that already affects billions of people worldwide. As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns become uneven, farmers in the world’s poorest regions will struggle to produce staple foods, heightening the risk of malnutrition and undernutrition. Warmer temperatures have already worsened diet quality and increased malnutrition among young children in Asia, Africa, and South America.

As PIH has seen in its work around the world, malnutrition worsens epidemics such as HIV and TB. And flooding and drought in Malawi, for example, has led to poor crop yields, putting more people at risk of malnutrition and making PIH’s food and housing support there, in addition to medical care, critical.

Heart and lung disease are other clinical areas where climate change is expected to take a toll. As extreme heat becomes more common, air pollution will worsen and more people will die from cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Those suffering from airborne infectious diseases, such a tuberculosis, will further struggle to breathe. And increasing wildfires mean that more people will be exposed to dangerous levels of smoke, putting them at risk for lung disease and other respiratory issues.

Infectious diseases are also projected to become more common as climate change escalates. Floods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes and contaminate water supplies, putting people at risk of insect- and water-borne diseases, as PIH has seen in cholera outbreaks in Haiti and Sierra Leone.

Over the past few decades, the number of emerging infectious diseases has skyrocketed due to warming temperatures and the destruction of forests and wildlife, bringing humans into increased contact with disease-carrying animals. The origins of COVID-19 remain unclear, but a World Health Organization inquiry is investigating the possibility of animal-to-human transmission.

“Our human and environmental health comes back to the way that we as human beings restructure environments and ecosystems,” Bhaskar says. “We denaturalize the checks and balances that nature has put into place to protect us.”

People in Peru stand knee-deep in water after a flood tore through Carabayllo, an impoverished neighborhood near Lima.
As ocean temperatures rise and rainfall increases due to the El Niño climate pattern, flooding in places like Carabayllo, an impoverished community in Peru, has puts lives and livelihoods at risk. Photo courtesy of Socios En Salud.

An Unequal Burden

Ask Rock about environmental justice and he’ll tell you about an open-pit mine about five miles south of Oljeto, Utah. It’s where his grandfather went to work every day.

The Moonlight Mine is one of more than 500 uranium mines that the U.S. government built on Navajo Nation, as it was stockpiling nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands.

Rock remembers a story his grandfather told that still haunts him. His grandfather and a few men were hauling ore out of the mine when, suddenly, the entrance collapsed. His grandfather watched helplessly as a boulder fell on the man behind him, crushing him.

The mine was closed after that. But the damage didn’t end there. Years later, his grandfather came down with cancer from his exposure to uranium—an injustice that still affects Navajo Nation today.

“It will take many generations for that to be cleaned up,” says Rock, who has testified to U.S. Congress about the issue. “It’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”

In the United States, the genocide of Indigenous people, the theft of their land, and the desecration of their sacred sites paved the way for the environmental injustice that marks daily life for communities of color, where toxic waste sites, garbage dumps, oil pipelines, and other sources of pollution are more likely to be built.

“From a political standpoint, people listen less to the communities of color on the frontlines of this crisis,” says Bhaskar. “And we know, for example, that policymakers are less likely to legislate against petroleum plants and other toxic burdens being placed in those areas, because they’re definitely not going to be placed in a white suburban community.”

These inequities exist on a global level, too. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But it is the world’s poor who will suffer most, unless bold action is taken.

Africa, which is the least responsible for climate change, will be hit the hardest. As climate change ushers in warmer temperatures and more destructive natural disasters, millions of people across the continent are at greater risk of displacement, famine, malnutrition, and disease. By 2050, crop yields could drop by 13% in West and Central Africa, 11% in North Africa and 8% in East and Southern Africa, according to the United Nations.

In countries such as China and India, where the West has outsourced its production, pollution claims hundreds of thousands of lives. In China, at least 108,600 premature deaths in 2007 were linked to consumption in Western Europe and the U.S, according to a study published in Nature in 2017. Western consumption habits, such as upgrading a mobile phone every six months, comes with a hefty health cost, oceans away.

PIH staff walk up a dirt road in Butaro, Rwanda, where PIH works.
PIH staff walk to the main road after a home visit in Butaro, Rwanda. Photo by Cecille Joan Avila / Partners In Health.

‘We’re Up Against Goliath’

Sanders, Ariz., sits on a rural stretch of land along I-40, once part of Route 66, dotted with sagebrush and flanked by the mountainous Puerco Ridge. It’s a quiet town of some 630 people, mostly Navajo. When Rock decided to test the town’s water supply in 2015, as part of his federally-funded environmental justice research, he didn’t realize he’d cause an uproar.

Rock, who holds a PhD in earth science and environmental sustainability from Northern Arizona University, conducted this research with Tolani Lake Enterprises, a Navajo grassroots organization. And the findings were jarring: Residents of Sanders, whose water source was a well in a rundown wooden shack, had been drinking water laced with uranium for more than a decade—without any notice from the state.

Those findings set in motion a months-long campaign, led by Sanders residents and supported by Rock and his colleagues, to demand that the town’s water source was changed to a nearby utility. The campaign was a success—eight months later, Arizona and the Navajo Nation agreed to let Sanders switch its water source.

The underlying issue was not lost on Rock—the U.S. government, once again, failing to take responsibility for the ongoing harm it was causing to Indigenous people, on land that it stole from them and had mismanaged ever since.

He knows that the fight for climate justice has spanned generations and will continue for generations more. But the moments of victory, no matter how small, matter.

“We’re up against Goliath,” he says. “But every little win motivates me and keeps me going.”

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