ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
As Jeff mentioned, it will likely take years for any greenhouse gas regulations to be put in place, and it would take even longer for us to tell if those steps could slow global warming. So that leaves us with higher temperatures as a fact of life. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on the health implications of climate change.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Government statistics show that excessive heat caused or contributed to 6,000 deaths in the United States from 1979 to 2002.
Dr. KRISTIE EBI (Epidemiologist, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change): We know that heat kills.
SHOGREN: Epidemiologist Kristie Ebi, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says global warming is making heat waves deadlier.
Dr. EBI: As heat waves become more frequent and intense, there could be a several-fold increase in the number of people who die during those heat waves.
SHOGREN: Studies also links climate change to increases in water- and food-borne illnesses that cause diarrhea. And some illnesses carried by insects, like West Nile and Lyme disease, thrive in warmer temperatures. But the biggest early health risk from global warming for Americans is bad air quality, especially in polluted cities like Washington, D.C.
Dr. RICHARD CARTER (Emergency Physician, Howard University Hospital): The asthma room is open.
SHOGREN: Dr. Richard Carter is showing an asthma patient into a room at Howard University Hospital's Emergency Department. After feeling lousy for a few days, 60-year-old Willie Edwards rode his bike into the ER this morning.
Mr. WILLIE EDWARDS: Well, I couldn't breathe, really for the last couple of days, too good.
SHOGREN: It's a cool, cloudy day in April, but on bad air days in the summer, Edwards knows to stay in the air conditioning because the pollution outside can cause him breathing trouble. After some treatments, Edwards is feeling better but Carter says often, respiratory distress is challenging for doctors and scary and life-threatening for patients, especially when bad air quality plays a role.
Dr. CARTER: In the hotter, humid days in the summertime, when the weather is changing and when there's more pollutants in the air, we definitely see more patients with respiratory problems.
SHOGREN: And more patients in worse shape, like one man Dr. Carter remembers.
Dr. CARTER: A 60-something-year old gentleman came in, longtime smoker, hot day…
SHOGREN: He had a history of lung problems and had delayed getting medical care. Dr. Carter remembers giving him breathing treatments and putting a tube down his throat so a machine could breathe for him.
Dr. CARTER: But it kinda just got worse. I take him to the ICU and then check back in on him a day or so later, and he just didn't make it.
SHOGREN: It's almost impossible to attribute a particular death to air pollution, but epidemiological studies show air pollution causes tens of thousands of deaths in the United States each year, mostly on hot days, when the smog or ground level ozone is bad and there are lots of fine particles in the air.
Dr. CARTER: Somebody who has respiratory illness and who suffers a heart attack, well, they might survive that heart attack on a day when the ozone is low. But on a day when the ozone is high, they might not.
SHOGREN: Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson says climate change increases the death rate from air pollution. Using complex models of the atmosphere, he calculated that global warming already is causing 800 to 1,000 additional deaths each year, mostly in places that suffer from the worst air quality.
Professor MARK JACOBSON (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University): And it's not only death, it's increased hospitalizations, emergency room visits, loss of workdays, and general increase in health-care costs.
SHOGREN: And even if we cut greenhouse gases, experts say, we can't stop Earth from warming over the next 30 years. So more has to be done to fight health risks like air pollution and heat waves.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.