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Daniel Oppenheim is a physician in southern Maine.
As a doctor concerned about the health of my patients, I cannot help but also be concerned about the health impacts of global climate change on my community, my state and the entire planet. I have been a practicing physician in Maine for over 30 years, I currently serve as co-chair of the public health committee of the Maine Medical Association and represent both the MMA and the Endocrine Society to the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. I also am a member of the Maine Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, whose first report on the expected effects of climate change in Maine was published in the year 2000, with a follow-up report in 2015.
In July, the Center for Disease Control released a report titled “Preparing for the Regional Health Impacts of Climate Change in the United States,” which examined the likely health impacts of climate change based on “location-specific climate exposures and unique societal and demographic characteristics.” This report describes the major effects of global climate change on human health in each region of the country.
In the Northeast Region, the particular concerns raised by this thorough science- and data-based report include: illness and death related to extremes of temperature, both heat and cold; tick and mosquito-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, babesiosis and anaplasmosis as well as West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis; worsening air quality resulting in an increase in respiratory illnesses such as asthma among both children and adults; deteriorating water quality with attendant sickness from ingesting polluted water; extreme weather events resulting in coastal flooding spreading stored industrial chemicals, and inland storm-related soil erosion disbursing toxic chemicals and threatening food production and distribution; and increasing mental illness as the environment deteriorates causing shortages of both resources and means of livelihood.
The report goes on to point out that states such as Maine, with a high proportion of elderly citizens, in fact with the oldest median age in the country, are particularly vulnerable to these health impacts.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is aware of these issues, and is working hard to avert disaster. For example, DHHS is monitoring ticks populations and tick-borne illnesses, has helped other state agencies to develop extreme-weather response plans, and is working with the University of Maine Climate Change Institute to develop improved climate models to help predict disease.
Despite these efforts, the health impacts of climate change are increasing, and the work desperately needs attention and resources. The Climate Action Plan and its resulting initiatives can help by responding to and preparing for the current and future health impacts of global climate change.
We need to move ahead aggressively now. This impending crisis needs to be at the top of the political agenda for 2021. Maine cannot solve this issue alone or even with enthusiastic partners in our region. We also urgently need action at the federal level. We need effective leadership at all levels of government to address the climate change crisis.
The council’s Community Resilience Planning, Public Health, and Emergency Management Working Group has made several policy recommendations for inclusion in the final action plan. In particular, they have recommended investing directly in public health, the key to combating this impending health catastrophe. They have urged that resources be devoted to both monitoring and education, as well as to other important efforts such as protecting water sources from high intensity weather events.
I hope the Climate Council takes these recommendations seriously, and finds ways to protect Mainers from the impacts of climate change on our individual and collective health before it is too late.