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Connecting Climate Change Effects to Respiratory Health


Most people with asthma or allergies don’t usually associate their worsening symptoms with the effects of climate change. However, according to a paper published by researchers at Columbia University School of Nursing, the connection between them is undeniable.


“The effects of climate change on respiratory health is probably the most established and yet poorly understood,” said lead author Maureen George, PhD, associate professor. “Whether it is air pollution, more extreme weather patterns, or flooding, every aspect of climate change is linked to threatened respiratory health.”


The paper, entitled “Climate Change Effects on Respiratory Health: Implications for Nursing,” published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, explores the adverse health effects of climate change on two particularly vulnerable patient populations: children and adults with respiratory conditions. It found that climate change produces a number of changes to the natural and built environment that may potentially increase respiratory disease prevalence, morbidity, and mortality.  


“Education has been a challenge because nursing curricula has not really addressed nursing’s role in climate change,” George said. “We need to think about how we are educating the workforce to identify and deal with these worsening connections to health and environment. A nursing school is the perfect place to have information about what we can do to decrease exposure to climate change.”


George says the idea for the paper stemmed from original research she performed a few years ago. Her previous work, which sought to understand contextual factors affecting asthma control, found statistically significant evidence that environmental factors ranging from pollen, dirt, illegal dumping, traffic, etc., could create “hot spots” that worsen respiratory health symptoms. She says while advancements have been made in understanding the impact of climate change on respiratory health, nurses can play an important role in reducing the deleterious effects of climate change. This will require a multi-pronged approach of research, policy, and clinical action, according to the authors.


 “Many nurses are not aware of the impact of climate change on respiratory health, especially within children who are among the most vulnerable,” said second author Jean-Marie Bruzzese, PhD, associate professor. “We hoped to call attention to this important problem and suggest ways nurses can lessen the impact of climate change.”


The authors state that climate change is responsible for a number of changes in the environment, which in turn, increases the negative impact of pulmonary diseases in both children and adults. They say being mindful of what health implications are worsened with climate change will help address how they can better care for their patients.


“We need to be mindful that climate change exists, and that it leads to changes in the environment that have a negative impact on respiratory health,” Bruzzese said. “It is critical for patients to understand this and to learn ways to best protect themselves or their children.”


The authors say nurses can also help through research, practice, and policy “that strengthens community resilience, narrows health inequities, and facilitates positive adaptation in the face of climate stressors.” Bruzzese explains that all three facets--research, practice, and policy-- must be addressed if we want to see change.


“They are equally important and have bi-directional relationships,” she said. “For example, research informs how nurses might treat patients, and also informs policy directed at climate change. Similarly, how patients respond to treatment and education may lead to new research questions.”


Both George and Bruzzese offer suggestions for future research to better understand climate change hazards, policies to support prevention and mitigation efforts targeting climate change, and clinical actions to reduce individual risk.