WASHINGTON (CN) – The toll on public health from climate change is a heavy one and disproportionately affects children, women, the elderly and the poor, a group of health experts told lawmakers Tuesday.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform met for the second time this month to discuss climate change. An April 9 hearing zeroed in on achieving consensus around climate science, but Democratic lawmakers on the committee Tuesday were less inclined to debate detractors of climate science and more focused on how Congress must address increased rates of asthma, the spread of disease and an uptick in mental and behavioral health issues linked to a warming and increasingly polluted planet.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a physician and co-director at Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, laid his experience and the facts bare for the committee.
“I’ve seen children whose lungs were so contaminated by pollution they could not breathe,” Bernstein said. “I’ve seen children who no longer have the will to live after surviving floods that washed away their homes and their peace of mind. I’ve held infants whose brains were infected with Zika and what ties this all together is our reliance on fossil fuels, which when extracted from the earth and are burned, damage our children’s health.”
One in 10 children have asthma in the United States and poor children, particularly poor black children, suffer from asthma at a rate of one in six.
One in five children are obese or have conditions like diabetes or heart disease and their health is worsening so significantly that children alive today are now on track to have shorter life expectancies than their parents, according to an April report by the nonprofit research organization Health Effects Institute.
One in six children between the ages of 2 and 10 years old now have mental or behavioral issues such as autism, and one in five will be diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
And since 2009, youth reporting suicidal tendencies has increased by 50%, Bernstein said.
“Particulate matter, mercury and other hydrocarbons released when fossil fuels are burned all contribute to neurodevelopment disorders and the U.S. spends $200 billion to address this each year,” he told lawmakers.
Treating asthma alone is on track to cost the U.S. economy $80 billion in 2020, Bernstein noted.
Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a physician and environmental health scientist who has studied air pollution since the 1960s, told lawmakers the list of adverse impacts from climate change to public health could “fill a textbook.”
But if that goes over people’s heads, he said, there’s an even more practical way to answer the “so what?” question critics of manmade climate change often have.
“Forty-eight million people are affected by food poisoning in the U.S. each year and 3,000 die from it. It’s more common in the summer because bacteria thrive in heat,” Goldstein said.
He said instances of food poisoning will only increase with temperatures and how the federal government responds when an existing threat is amplified is critical.
Recalling the work-stopping heat he experienced while driving a truck without air conditioning in the Bronx several years ago, Goldstein told Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the formula is clear.
“If you’re talking about increased heat in a place that is already hot, [people’s] ability to work is something else we have to take into account now,” he said.
Dr. Cheryl Holder, a physician and associate professor at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, told lawmakers increased carbon emissions and the resulting warming have also worsened conditions for allergy sufferers.
“Vibrant flowering on trees creates more allergies and more asthma,” she said.
Hotter temperatures are also taking a heavier toll on women in unexpected ways, she said.
First, women are more often responsible for tending to their children’s health than men, she noted. They ferry children between doctor visits, arrange for health care and in the event of a natural disaster – which occur more often as a result of global warming - women are more now often left to prepare for a storm alone.
Even hotter temperatures at night are wreaking havoc on women with menopause.
“They’re complaining to me when it’s hotter at night and you can’t afford air conditioning, you don’t sleep well. Women are paying the cost for taking care of their families and the impact of that cost is right now,” Holder said.
Caleb Rossiter, executive director of the CO2 Coalition, a conservative-leaning, nonprofit think tank, played down the impact of climate change on public health Tuesday.
Invited by the Republican minority to testify, Rossiter said greater wealth would help the planet and the public.
“Wealthy people can fund government policy and infrastructure to combat environmental problems,” Rossiter said.
When asked directly by Representative Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., if he believed climate science was real, Rossiter asked first for a “definition.”
“I think that tells us what we need to know about your position,” Gomez shot back.
Tuesday’s hearing comes as H.R. 9, or the Climate Action Now Act, is being readied for a vote in the House of Representatives.
The bill would restore U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2017, and would require the Trump administration to develop an annual plan to meet greenhouse gas emission cuts.
It is widely expected to clear the Democratic-controlled House but fail in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.