Autoimmune Diseases, the Environment, and You

Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases are on the rise, and climate change is contributing to those increases — and the risks to your personal health.

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climate change autoimmune disease
As the planet warms, your immune system confronts an increasing number of toxins, viruses, and other threats.Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

As climate change continues to alter the environment at an alarming rate, researchers have been looking into what that means for human health. One particular concern has been climate change’s connection with the rise in autoimmune diseases and their comorbidities, as well as its effect on already established autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue — such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, thyroid diseases, and type 1 diabetes.

Signs That Incidences of Autoimmune Disease Are Increasing

A study conducted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health and published in Arthritis and Rheumatology in 2020 shows that over the course of a recent 25-year span in the United States, there has been a 50 percent increase in the presence of antinuclear antibodies, the most common biomarker of autoimmunity in the population.

Autoimmune Diseases and a Changing Climate: What’s the Connection?

The planet is currently experiencing extreme weather events, droughts, wildfires, air pollution, heat waves, arid soil, and a loss of biodiversity. While research into the effect of these events on people with autoimmune diseases and those at risk for them is still is in the early stages, there are rising concerns.

How the Climate Can Hurt Your Immune System and Your Health

Here’s a look at six ways that environmental degradation and global warming may impact people who are concerned about autoimmune disease.

1. Reduced Biodiversity Means More Allergies, a Less Diverse Microbiome

Changes in season lengths and increasing temperatures have caused certain native fauna and flora to die out, leaving the path open to new, nonnative ones. And as the new plants and wildlife come in, they bring new antigens with them, which may cause people to develop new allergies, explains Xue Ming, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and coauthor of a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The loss of biodiversity may also negatively affect the skin and the gut microbiome, with the potential to increase the number of cases of inflammatory, autoimmune, and neurologic diseases.

2. Air Pollution From Burning Fossil Fuels and Wildfires Can Increase the Risk of Immune-Mediated Diseases by 10 Percent

Air pollution is an important factor in climate change. When fossil fuels such as oil and coal are burned, carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise. A study published in earlier this year in RMD Open concluded that long-term exposure to air pollution was associated with a “higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases, in particular rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue diseases and inflammatory bowel disease. Chronic exposure to levels above the threshold for human protection was associated with a 10 percent higher risk of developing various immune-mediated diseases.”

RELATED: Climate Change Is Making the Majority of Infectious Diseases Worse

Several studies have found a link between higher levels of particulate matter, the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air, and the incidences of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. “You could draw a line between climate change causing increased particulate matter and increased air particulate matter causing increased connective tissue disease,” says rheumatologist Thomas Bush, MD, a doctor of internal medicine at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California, who has written often on the topic of climate change and health.

Air pollution from wildfires can be even more toxic than regular smoke because the particulates are coming from burning plastics, pesticides, and other more complex and unhealthy matter. A new study published this month in New Directions for Child and Adolescent Research reports that children exposed to wildfire particulates have elevated inflammation markers and lower autonomic cardiac regulation.

3. Climate Change Makes It Easier for Contagious Viruses to Spread

Viral infections are a major trigger of autoimmunity, according to research published in Viruses. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus, a member of the herpes family, has been linked to Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s disease. “Unfortunately, climate changes have made viruses behave aberrantly. Some viruses spread more in warmer climates,” says Dr. Ming, who was not part of the study.

4. Disease-Carrying Insects Are More Prevalent, Upping the Risk of Viral Infections That Can Trigger Autoimmune Diseases

Diseases spread by ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes, known as vector-borne diseases, have become more common because warmer climates present better conditions for the spread and survival of the vector (the insect). A review published in 2018 in the Journal of Autoimmunity found that many vector-borne diseases (including Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and malaria) can mimic the symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune thyroiditis. And if you already have a genetic disposition to one of these autoimmune diseases, a vector-borne disease can potentially trigger it.

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5. Frequent Storms May Lead to More Contamination Exposure, More Mental Health Problems, and Less Access to Care

Public health experts’ main concern in this area is that severe weather events may lead to poorer health outcomes, especially among people of lower economic status. “Lower-income people are more likely to have outside work, so they are exposed to these storms and air particulates. They also may have substandard housing, they have less ability to buy air conditioners, and they probably have less ability to tolerate some disruption that has occurred to their environment,” says Dr. Bush. He also points out that when there is power loss, storms, and flooding, healthcare facilities and pharmacies may not be able to open or access electronic medical records. And some medications need refrigeration, which will also be lost in those situations. Therefore, timely access to needed medications may take a hit.

RELATED: Arthritis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, and Autoimmune Diseases: Your Questions, Answered

“Structural racism has led to longstanding health inequities for communities that have been subjected to marginalization. Climate change is exacerbating these longstanding health inequities for frontline communities — which are those communities that are hit first and worst by climate change,” said Kristi White, PhD, an assistant professor and clinical health psychologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School, in a press release about a study published in Translational Behavioral Medicine in April 2022.

6. Comorbidities Are Affected, Too

If you have one autoimmune disease, you are at higher risk of developing another. Plus, autoimmune diseases may come with comorbidities such as heart disease, allergies, and endometriosis, which are also affected by climate change. Heat waves, for example, can lead to higher mortality in people with heart disease or lung disease. Longer springs with higher pollen counts will negatively affect people with allergies. “There’s no reason patients with autoimmune diseases and comorbidities wouldn’t suffer in the same way that anyone else would with those conditions. In fact, I think they’d be a bit worse off because they often have a combination of these comorbidities,” says Bush.

How Can We Fight Climate Change to Reduce Health Risks?

For starters, climate change’s effect on public and personal health needs more study. In a report published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team warned that the effects of climate change have been “dangerously unexplored.”

“There are plenty of reasons to believe climate change could become catastrophic, even at modest levels of warming,” lead author Luke Kemp, PhD, a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, at the University of Cambridge in England, said in a press release.

So, what can be done about it?

  • Healthcare professionals need more training. Physicians have an important role in influencing the public regarding this issue — therefore, they should have more training in how to disseminate information to their patients about how climate change is affecting their health, says Bush. Many academies and medical schools are starting to take on this responsibility. Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, for example, has created the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education.
  • Advocacy is critical for making changes. The good news: A week after taking office, President Joe Biden created the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. The bad news: As of July 29, The Washington Post reports that Congress has not funded it. In June, the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. However, on August 12, the House of Representatives did pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which allocates $369 billion for climate and clean energy provisions. The bill has been called the most aggressive climate investment ever taken by that governing body. According to the bill’s proponents, it hopes to reduce the country’s carbon emissions by around 40 percent by 2030. If it becomes law, the United States will invest $369 billion in energy reform and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And the U.S. Department of Energy just announced a plan to give $19 million to small businesses involved in climate and energy research and development projects.
  • Do your climate and health homework, and get engaged. A lot more needs to be done. Check the websites of your local representatives and candidates for office to see where they stand on the issue of climate and health. A review published in May in The Journal of Climate Change and Health found that “86 percent of senators’ websites mentioned health, 51 percent climate change, 21 percent climate change and health, and 7 percent environmental justice and health. Looking at a single vote for a specific climate change bill, 46 percent voted yes among voting senators, including 76 percent of those with websites mentioning climate change, and 100 percent of those whose websites mentioned an interaction of climate change with health or environmental justice.” )
  • Reach out to your elected officials. Write and call your senator and congressional representative to let them know where you stand on this.
  • Stay informed about future leaders and local health risks. You can get more nuts-and-bolts information about candidates at Climate Hawks Votes. Also, there is a lot of good information about what is currently being done at the Clean Air Task Force. The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health provides information about the effects of climate change on health by region, reports on government policies, and lets people know how to take action.

The Future (of the Climate and Our Health) Is Now

Ming says, “Some people think that this doesn’t affect them, but it affects all inhabitants of Earth. We’re creating new types of diseases and sub health conditions. People are not in a maximal health state as a result of the human behaviors that are causing climate change. We need to bring the message home that everyone has to do their part, because it’s affecting us all now, not just in the future.”