What The Hurricane Leaves Behind: Climate Change and Asthma

by Andrew Whelan

Candace Cahoon is a respiratory therapist specializing in pediatric asthma

For most people the connection between health and air pollution is easy to grasp. But what about health and climate change?

“When we think of climate change, we don’t often think about how it affects children and adults with respiratory issues,” says Candace Cahoon of Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital.

Candace Cahoon is a respiratory therapist specializing in pediatric asthma in eastern North Carolina, and serves on the Advisory Board for Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. Through her work she is constantly reminded of the toll climate change takes on children’s lungs. But she worries that not enough people are connecting the dots between health outcomes and the severe weather associated with climate change.

“After the hurricane leaves, people often forget the aftermath they leave behind. But the kids I see have to live with these impacts for years.”


A Public Health Crisis

Eastern North Carolina suffered major flooding following Hurricane Florence.

Climate change is a global issue, but its local impacts can be devastating. North Carolinians were painfully reminded of this last year when Hurricanes Florence and Michael killed dozens of people and caused millions of dollars in property damage. The problems didn’t recede along with the floodwaters.

“There’s a whole chain of events that occurs after these disasters have passed,” Cahoon explains. “Hurricanes bring flooding, which brings mold, which attracts cockroaches. Mold and cockroaches are both common triggers of asthma, especially for younger kids.”

And it’s not just floods that pose dangers for asthma patients. Climate change also intensifies heat and increases local levels of air pollen, both of which can exacerbate asthma. This is bad news for the nearly one-in-five children in North Carolina who have been diagnosed with this chronic disease.


A Deadly Combination

Children are much more vulnerable to asthma than adults.

Children’s lungs are still developing, making them much more vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses than adults. The risk is amplified for children from low-income families.

The kids referred to Cahoon typically lack access to necessary asthma medications due to inadequate health insurance or other factors. Their families also tend to be renters, not homeowners. Without the resources to fix mold-infested homes, children are at the mercy of landlords responsible for providing livable housing. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for landlords in these communities to ignore mold infestations, and in some cases even attempt to cover them up.

All of this is a deadly combination for Cahoon’s patients. “These kids can’t breathe. Their cases can be so severe that they require acute care and end up being air-lifted to critical care facilities,” she says. “They already have so many things going against them. When you add in climate change, you’re just multiplying these problems exponentially.”


Connecting the Dots

For North Carolina’s children, climate change isn’t just an environmental problem; it’s a public health crisis. That’s why Cahoon traveled to Washington, D.C. last month to attend the annual meeting of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health. She wanted to share her stories with North Carolina lawmakers and health professionals from around the country.

When asked about her message to leaders in government and business, Cahoon replied: “I would really just ask them to connect the dots and take into consideration how climate change affects the human condition. This isn’t about politics. This is a global crisis that affects every aspect of the healthcare industry. Most importantly, it is an emergent situation that is already affecting the health and wellness of future generations.”

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