Climate change contributing to rise in immune health problems

Man wearing face mask in Canberra, Australia, 5/01/2020. Smoke coming from nearby forest fires creates high pollution and covers Canberra with a thick fog.

April 11, 2024 – Diseases related to problems in immune health—from nasal allergies to food allergies to rheumatoid arthritis to colorectal cancer—have spiked in recent years, and climate change appears to be playing a role, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Kari Nadeau.

Nadeau, John Rock Professor of Climate and Population Studies and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, was co-author of an April 3 study in Frontiers in Science that outlined how climate-driven stressors are driving immune dysregulation, which in turn is contributing to an increase in immune-mediated diseases.

Nadeau offered examples in an April 4 STAT News opinion piece. For instance, she explained how the many irritants caused by climate change—including soot from wildfires and high levels of pollen that result from unusually warm springs—damage bodily structures such as skin and mucous membranes that protect people from infection.

She also noted that extreme weather has destroyed crops and livestock, leading to a rise in hunger and famine. Staple crops such as wheat and rice that do grow may lose nutrient content due to high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The resulting malnourishment prevents healthy immune system development.

Climate-related stressors can also cause persistent inflammation in the body that can lead to cancer and other diseases, Nadeau wrote.

To combat the global rise in immune-mediated diseases, she called for implementing policies to mitigate climate change and funding more research on how climate change impacts immune health. She also urged “scientists, clinicians, journalists, politicians—anyone with a platform, really—to keep explaining to the public that climate change has very real effects on the human body.”

Read the Frontiers in Science study: Immune-mediated disease caused by climate change-associated environmental hazards: mitigation and adaptation

Read the STAT opinion piece: How climate change is driving a global epidemic of immune health problems, and how to stop it

Photo: iStock/Daniiielc