Hurricane Florence and the health effects of climate change

Among the coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, news stories about the overflowing waste from North Carolina pig lagoonswere among the most stomach-turning. North Carolina is home to a slew of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and these industrial livestock farming operations often involve storing massive volumes of pig manure in contained “lagoons.”The driving rain from Hurricane Florence caused at least 110 of these lagoons to swell over. CAFOs are, in themselves, a topic of concern among public health and environmental justice advocates. But this specific example of what happens when CAFOs and extreme weather patterns collide provides an opportunity to reflect on the unique relationship between public health and climate change.

While it is difficult to prove that any one storm is caused by climate change, a growing body of evidence suggests that weather patterns like Hurricane Florence are exacerbated by global warming. There is also evidence that CAFOs are related to negative public health outcomes. One study from Duke showed that the life expectancy among those who live near CAFOs is shorter than average. It is not far-fetched to imagine that pig waste overflowing as a result of Hurricane Florence could cause climate-change-related negative health outcomes.

While overflow from pig manure lagoons due to more severe storm patterns may be a contained concern, the issue provides a launching pad to think about a few important broader themes.

First, the relationship between climate change and public health is a tangible one. Rising global temperatures could cause public health crises or negative health outcomes in a range of other domains. And, notably, these outcomes will disproportionately affect communities that are already vulnerable to public health crises.

Second, current public health and environmental legislation is not prepared to handle these effects. The New York Times coverage of the pig lagoons in North Carolina points out that the storm standards for pig lagoons have not been updated since the 1960s. While North Carolina ultimately agreed to impose more updated requirements through a settlement with the nonprofit Earthjustice, the advocate quoted in the article considered the new standard “still kind of old. This aspect of the lagoon overflow highlights another important aspect of the relationship between climate change and public health: many of the laws used to project environmental health can’t keep up with fast-moving conditions due to climate change. While some of the major environmental laws dating to the 1970s have been used to address green house gas emissions and the effects of climate change—Massachusetts v. EPA providing one prominent example—we’re not legislatively prepared to preempt problems like heat waves and changing migratory patterns of mosquitos, and many of our standards are dated.

Third—and relatedly—the public health effects of climate change may be an important hook to revise current environmental standards or introduce climate change legislation. Updating our existing environmental laws to meet changing conditions due to global warming could be an important incremental step in addressing the health effects of the rising temperatures. And while the regulation of greenhouse gasses may feel like a pipe dream in the current political climate, concern over the above-described public health crises could be a motivating way to frame the problem. As two major pieces of U.S. environmental legislation—the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act—demonstrate, the impetus to impose environmental law is often tied to concerns about human health.

Alexandra Slessarev

Alexandra Slessarev

Alexandra Slessarev is a 2018-2019 Petrie-Flom Center Student Fellow. She is a third-year JD/MPH student at Harvard. Her public health research interests include maternal and reproductive health, state-level Medicaid implementation, and the intersection of health and the environment. Prior to starting her dual-degree program, Alexandra spent a year working as a research assistant at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, where she worked on several projects related to long-acting reversible contraception provision and education.

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