Updated: Nov 2
In 2022 Four siblings between ages 8 and 1 drowned in a catastrophic Kentucky flood when they were swept from parents’ arms. The parents held onto their kids for as long as possible, but the children were eventually pulled away by the force of the current. In one related article buzzfeed.com wrote “Weather disasters like this are inextricably linked to human-induced climate change. The planet has already warmed 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to NASA, making disasters worse.”
In July 2023 a family of five from Charleston, South Carolina, were on their way to a gathering in PA when their vehicle was hit by a “wall of water” from Hough’s Creek. The mother perished and the body of the two-year-old girl was discovered 30 miles away. The rescue efforts of hundreds of people using “K-9s, sonar, drones, boats, divers, heavy equipment, GPS mapping and air units", recovered the body of the 9-month-old baby two days later. The police chief said: “The mass casualty incident, like these, which we have never seen before, (is) unbelievable and devastating to all the families involved”. CNN reported “Over the past month, parts of interior New England and the Northeast have seen 200% to 300% of their average monthly rainfall, …. Floods are among the deadliest weather hazards in the US, according to the National Weather Service. … A flash flood can happen anywhere intense rain falls faster than the soil can absorb, and generally happen within a short time period after rain, making them more life-threatening, according to the National Weather Service.”
In my opinion, the demise of these children are unrecognized climate change related deaths.
In a recent conference organized by ENBEL I learned some very relevant facts. Climatic data shows that 50-year floods are 13.9% more common now due to climate change, making them occur on average every four years. A study out of Royal National Lifeboat Institution shows that drowning is the #1 injury on the rise from climate change induced flooding. (Sindall R, Mecrow T, Queiroga AC, et al Drowning risk and climate change: a state-of-the-art review Injury Prevention 2022;28:185-191) They explain that climate change is an overlooked threat multiplier for drowning. In neither of the two cases mentioned above were the deaths of the children recognized as due to climate change.
According to their website “by bringing together leaders in climate change and health research, the project ‘Enhancing Belmont Research Action to support EU policy making on climate change and health (ENBEL)’ aims to support EU, international and national policy making with the aim of shaping low-carbon economies and build climate resilience.” The executive director of PSR PA, Tonyehn Verkitus and myself attended the conference organized by ENBEL with the purpose of gaining up to date education on climate and health. We were also given an opportunity to present our work on the clinical tool that PSR PA has developed titled OCAREER. Our poster presentation “A Practical Tool to Assess the Effects of Climate and Health” showcased how this mnemonic prompts clinician to ask questions about the social determinants of health that are exacerbated by risk of climate change, how to code the clinical encounter for payment and for data collection purposes and finally how to refer and provide resources when risks are identified in a patient. (psrpa.org/ocareer)
Also, at the ENBEL conference I had the chance to see the people who filmed and investigated perhaps the first climate change related occupational disease. Ten years ago, an alarming number of sugar cane workers in Nicaragua were either dying from heat related illnesses or ending up on dialysis from kidney failure. The picture of kidney disease of non-traditional origin emerged as being due to working in extreme heat conditions. While These workers had always worked long hours, conducting manually demanding tasks, the rise in global surface temperature exacerbated their exposure to temperatures that are not physiologically adaptable without appropriate interventions. CKD-NT has been documented in many other countries where agricultural workers face similar increasingly harsh climactic conditions.
Climate change related deaths are here and in plain sight. The increasing frequency and intensity of floods, hurricanes, and hot temperatures have contributed to the deaths of many people where the connection to climate disruption has been unrecognized. The tragedy of their loss is not reversible, but recognition of the cause is a mandatory step towards protection of vulnerable populations. When patterns such as CKD-NT show the importance of intervention, it is unfathomable for governments not to act in preventing deaths of children who are ripped out of their parent’s arms by the hands of climate chaos.