Hurricanes, extreme weather linked to more U.S. deaths from several seemingly unrelated causes

NEW YORK — The immediate impact of a major hurricane, tropical cyclone, or extreme storms are obvious. Homes and businesses disappear, and lives change forever. Now, a new international research project is revealing the hidden human costs of these weather events and climate-related disasters.

Scientists from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Colorado State University, Imperial College London, and Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health report hurricanes and other U.S. tropical cyclones in recent decades contribute to an over 33-percent higher death rate from several major, seemingly unrelated causes in the months afterward.

In simpler terms, in the weeks and months following extreme weather events, more people than usual die across America from health issues including infections, injuries, parasitic diseases, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and neuropsychiatric disorders.

In a broader sense, study authors say these findings emphasize just how widespread, devastating, and long-lasting climate-related disasters and climate change can be in terms of human life costs.

The ‘hidden burden’ of extreme weather

Study authors used a total of 33.6 million U.S. death records spanning 1988-2018 to create a statistical model capable of calculating death rate fluctuations from the norm following tropical cyclones and hurricanes in comparison to previous years.

The biggest death rate increases during the month of a hurricane were attributable to injuries (33.4%). Meanwhile, death rates in the month after tropical cyclones also increased due to storm-related injuries (3.7%), infectious and parasitic diseases (1.8%), respiratory diseases (1.3%), cardiovascular diseases (1.2%), and neuropsychiatric conditions (1.2 %).

U.S. residents living in 1,206 different counties dealt with at least one tropical cyclone during the study period. That sample accounted for roughly half the U.S. population, with tropical cyclones being most common in eastern and south-eastern coastal counties.

“Recent tropical cyclone seasons—which have yielded stronger, more active, and longer-lasting tropical cyclones than previously recorded—indicate that tropical cyclones will remain an important public health concern,” says first study author Robbie Parks, PhD, post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in a university release. “Our results show that tropical cyclones in the U.S. were associated with increases in deaths for several major causes of death, speaking to the ‘hidden burden’ of climate-related exposures and climate change.”

“An outsized proportion of low-income and historically-disadvantaged communities in the United States reside in tropical cyclone-affected areas; understanding the public health consequences of climate-related disasters such as hurricanes and other tropical cyclones is an essential component of environmental justice,” Dr. Parks adds.

Women more at risk than men

Regarding gender, female injury death rates (46.5%) actually surpassed males (27.6%) in the months after a hurricane. Death rate jumps were also higher among older adults (65+) in the immediate month following a tropical cyclone (6.4%) in comparison to younger age groups (2.7%).

“In the U.S., tropical cyclones, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, have a devastating effect on society, yet a comprehensive assessment of their continuing health impacts had been lacking,” notes senior study author Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, ScD, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “Our study is a first major step in better understanding how cyclones may affect deaths, which provides an essential foundation for improving resilience to climate-related disasters across the days, weeks, months, and years after they wreak destruction.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA.


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