Cambridge health effects due to climate change include cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, heat-related illnesses

Climate change is concerning for many reasons, from increased natural disasters to unbearable summer temperatures. Another major issue: the health effects climate change can cause. 

The global annual temperature has increased at an average rate of .14º Fahrenheit per decade since 1880, and that rate has more than doubled, up to .32º Fahrenheit per decade, since 1981, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information’s Annual 2022 Global Climate Report. The ocean is getting warmer, the ice sheets are shrinking, glaciers are retreating, snow cover is decreasing, and sea levels are rising: climate change is real, and it is scary. 

The ensuing health effects are dependent on location, because of the way climate change uniquely affects different regions. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, primary concerns are cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as a result of air pollution, and heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke as a result of rising temperatures.

“Massachusetts is downwind of a lot of air pollution emitting regions like the coal fired power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Patrick Kinney, a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. The higher the air pollution, the more prevalent the resulting health effects, and Cambridge receives a concerning amount of pollution.  

And even though temperatures are rising across the planet, cities that have seen high temperatures for years are more equipped to handle those rising temperatures.

“People in Massachusetts aren’t too adapted or exposed to high temperatures, not everybody has air conditioning,” Kinney said. “A really hot day would have a bigger health impact on a larger number of people in Cambridge than it would in say, Atlanta or Houston, where they’re very used to high temperatures.” 

(For reference, the average high temperature in Cambridge in July is 83º Fahrenheit. In Atlanta, it’s 89º Fahrenheit, and in Houston, it’s 91º F.)

The good news is that people can have a collectively large impact on slowing climate change by reducing their individual carbon emissions. Kinney suggested lifestyle modifications like using public transportation, walking, and cycling and eating a lower meat, higher vegetable diet. 

“The beauty of these changes is that the effect is two fold,” Kinney said. “Lowering your carbon emissions slows climate change, therefore staving off these climate change-fueled health impacts. But also, increasing exercise and switching out meat in favor of vegetables and legumes makes you healthier in and of itself, which means you’re less susceptible to these health effects even as the climate continues to change.”