Climate Change & Public Health


The health of the planet and health of communities around the globe are closely connected. Global warming pollution has impacted our communities profoundly in a number of ways putting our health and the health of our families at risk. From more extreme weather and degraded air and water quality, to changes in vector disease, the climate crisis is a public health crisis. Even so, solutions are available to curb carbon pollution and revolutionize the way we power our society, using clean and renewable energy. What’s more, these solutions also produce co-benefits that clean up our air, safeguard communities, improve our health, and promote energy independence.

Fossil fuels, meanwhile, have left a dangerous legacy that cities like Pittsburgh are still working to leave behind. Photographs from the 1940s show a city choked by smog and deadly pollution so thick, it blocked out the sun. While numerous environmental initiatives have helped improve Pittsburgh & SWPA's air and water quality, pollution still remains a major problem. As just a few indicators of many, the American Lung Association recently ranked the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton metropolitan area the eighth worst of more than 200 metropolitan areas in the nation for long-term (annual) soot pollution; the 14th worst for short-term or daily soot pollution, and the 29th worst for ground level ozone [6].

Sadly, these problems are not limited to the past. The expansion of oil and gas development has exacerbated not only the climate crisis, but also the pollution problem and the risks to human health that accompany it. Due to new drilling methods and the prolific Marcellus Shale, natural gas production in Pennsylvania has grown dramatically in recent years [7]. Fracking in the state has been linked to a wide range of negative impacts, such as the release of toxic chemicals and wastes into the air, rivers, drinking water, and land [8a, 8b, 8c, 8d].

Along with these chemicals escaping into the community, a rapid increase in methane emissions from fracking operations in Pennsylvania is particularly troubling [9]. In addition to being a greenhouse pollutant over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the short-term, methane leads to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog) and increases the risk for asthma attacks in children and pulmonary and heart disease in seniors and the disadvantaged [10].

Landowners and local communities, often already disadvantaged, are also being dealt new worries with a massive uptick in gas pipeline projects in the region that regulators are greenlighting despite the increased pollution and climate change they will lock in. On top of that, residents and electricity ratepayers are shouldering the increased costs of new gas pipelines that only benefit utilities and big oil interests.

After years of inaction, and with the consequences of natural gas development so clear, Pennsylvania policymakers have the opportunity to lead the nation in jointly tackling this climate and public health threat by reining in fracking to reduce methane emissions (and also pursue measures to protect residents from oil and gas pollution in other forms). As the nation’s second largest natural gas-producing state, Pennsylvania has a real opportunity to create solutions that empower its people, and work for its environment and economy [11].


Impacts on Health

o Higher temperatures and increased precipitation can impact allergies through increase allergens and longer allergy seasons. For instance, ragweed season has increased 13 to 27 days in northern U.S. latitudes [19a19b].

o The climate crisis is producing changes in the spread of vector diseases. For instance, the tick that carries Lyme disease is now found in every Pennsylvania county. There was a 25 percent increase in reported Lyme disease cases in 2014. Climate change is increasing the tick’s range and also the length of time (on a yearly basis) in which the tick feeds [20].

o West Nile virus is expected to increase in prevalence in higher elevations of Pennsylvania, but decrease in lower elevations as a result of climate change. The transmission season of the disease is expected to increase in length with increasing temperatures [21].

o A projected increase in the hottest temperatures can increase mortality from heat-related stress. The most at-risk populations to heat stress are infants and young children, the elderly over 65, those already ill, athletes, outdoor workers, and the less affluent [16].

o Vulnerable communities, particularly those in urban areas, are likely to become increasingly impacted by excessive heat and decreased air quality as a result of warming. [20] Water quality may be negatively impacted by increased runoff and increased risk of harmful algae blooms [21].

o One study found that excessive fatalities resulting from the hottest of days could, on a per-summer basis, increase by 25 times the current levels as soon as mid-century in Pittsburgh if emissions continue at current rates [17].

o Additionally, exposure to excessive heat can aggravate existing human health conditions like respiratory issues and heart disease [18].

Photo by Gerry Lauzon via Creative Commons 2.0

Photo by Gerry Lauzon via Creative Commons 2.0


Increase in heat-related fatalities

13-27 days

increase in ragweed season


Increase in Lyme Disease