As climate change continues to be felt across the country at an increasing pace, those working outside, like rural farm workers, will face a myriad of climate-related health impacts, researchers believe.
While many may associate climate change with rising temperatures and the danger of a heat stroke, experts say other health conditions ranging from respiratory issues caused by smoke inhalation to acute kidney disease will affect workers as well.
Roxana Chicas, assistant professor of nursing at Emory University, said the long-term effects of chronic dehydration that is a result of exposure to high temperatures are more than just heat stroke.
“Studies from California and our research in Florida, have shown that farmworkers experience chronic dehydration and acute kidney injury that is associated with high ambient temperatures,” she said in an email interview. “This is concerning because it has the potential to lead to chronic kidney disease…”
Those conditions can be more deadly in rural areas, she said.
“There are some studies that suggest that heat-related mortality risk is increased in rural areas,” she said. “This may be due to a combination of factors, such as lack of access to healthcare facilities, the nature of agricultural work done in rural areas, higher poverty rates, higher rates of chronic conditions, and social isolation.”
Long-term heat can indirectly affect other areas of the body, said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers (UFW), in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
“When your body is desperately trying to cool…off, a huge portion of your blood flow is diverted to your skin so that it can be cooled,” she said. “This has an effect on the rest of your body.”
Climate change is also increasing the incidents of wildfires across the U.S. Inhaling those fumes, doctors said, can cause injury to workers.
According to Dr. Clayton Cowl, a pulmonologist with the Mayo Clinic Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine, respiratory irritants can cause health risks to outdoor workers, even if they aren’t near the wildfire.
“Because of the severe wind in the areas involved, exposure to wildfire smoke can even occur if an individual is located several hundred miles away from the actual fire,” Cowl said.
The greatest health risk, he said, is from ultrafine particles inhaled deep into the lungs. Those particles contain not just the ash from burned vegetation, but also the remnants of other materials like homes, building structures with plastics, cars, and other products that release thousands of airborne chemicals.
“Some of those chemicals are extremely toxic, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and chlorine-based compounds,” said Dr. Cowl. Breathing in that air can cause nasal congestion and cause the eyes to sting and burn, as well as aggravating the respiratory system.
The danger of smoke inhalation, UFW’s Strater said, is that it’s hard to make rules to protect workers against something they can’t see, that may be the result of something that is happening hundreds of miles away.
“It does not feel like the same immediate danger to a farmer,” Strater said. “When you step outside, you’re going to recognize the searing heat and know you have to be careful if you want to get home alive that day. But with the air quality index rates and the fine particulates, you can’t really see it until it’s really terrible… it’s difficult to sort of take that in when you work in such a dangerous and grueling job every day.”
Climate change is also causing illnesses once normally only seen in one area of the country to pop up in other areas.
Strater said a respiratory illness called “Valley Fever” used to only be seen in the southwest.
Named after the San Joaquin Valley where it was discovered, the condition is caused by inhaling “coccidioides” fungal spores. Activities that stir up dust may increase the chances of inhaling the spores, which puts farm workers at greater risk. The spore grows in soil with low rainfall, hot summers, and mild winter temperatures.
According to the University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence, the fungal infection causes coughing, chest pain, fever, headache, chills, and fatigue. In most cases, infected patients never show symptoms. But in serious cases, the center said, symptoms may last for months and can lead to hospitalizations. On average, 160 people die of Valley fever each year.
Now, as climate zones along the West coast are changing, Strater said, farm workers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are showing up with Valley Fever.
“But because the clinicians are not looking for it, it’s much more dangerous. If your healthcare provider isn’t used to looking for a particular risk, it’s not going to be treated as aggressively and it can have a worse outcome,” she said.
Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen, said in an interview with the Daily Yonder, that climate changes will affect a wide range of workers. From EMTs to police and firefighters to construction and utility workers, climate change will increase their workloads. Those are the folks, she said, who will deal with fixing the problems created by extreme heat. And they are the ones who will suffer the long-term effects of extreme heat, as well.
More impacts could be coming, she said.
“The issue is going to have to be explored more and more as we see what the climate crisis brings,” she said. “The storms and the heat wave and things like that are, I think, uniquely putting our workers in danger.”