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Can global warming give you kidney stones?

By Kate Sheppard

The 1995 Chicago heat wave was one of the most brutal weather events the United States has ever experienced. On July 13, the thermostat hit 106 degrees. Many of the city’s poor and elderly residents had no air conditioning; many of those who did lost power as blackouts swept the city. Soon, thousands were suffering from dehydration, kidney failure and respiratory distress. The hospitals were overloaded; the city couldn’t cope with the flood of 911 calls. Over the following days, more than 600 people died from heat-related illnesses, with hundreds of bodies temporarily stored in refrigerated meat trucks because the city morgues were full.

The Chicago disaster was the worst heat wave in recent U.S. memory. But if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, health experts say catastrophic heat waves are likely to become far more common. Heat-related deaths in Chicago are expected to quadruple by 2050, up from the current annual average of 182, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a government study. Rising temperatures and accompanying atmospheric changes will alter disease patterns and aggravate all manners of medical conditions, from asthma to respiratory diseases to—believe it or not—kidney stones. In May 2009, the medical journal The Lancet and University College London’s Institute for Global Health issued a major report concluding that climate change is the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

All of this means new costs for the U.S. health care system—which will almost certainly be passed on to consumers in the form of higher insurance premiums. What is the insurance industry doing to prepare?

So far, not much. In 2008, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the group representing state government regulators of property, health and life insurers, announced that all such companies would be required to report both the risks and opportunities that climate change poses to their businesses. Some were eager to get started. Property insurers, says Joel Ario, chair of NAIC’s climate task force, “are probably the only people I know who are more worried about climate change than the environmentalists.”

X-Ray of Kidney Stones

An x-ray of a 7 mm kidney stone.

But the health insurers have been resistant. In a survey by NAIC, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s powerful lobby group, responded that it “has not adopted specific practices to identify climate change-related risks.” It added, “While we continue to monitor climate change as it pertains to the global health care situation there is no conclusive information currently available to address the effects of climate change on health care.” The American Council of Life Insurers argued in a letter that “knowledge in this area is not sufficiently developed to warrant an immediate, significant, costly and possibly damaging change to the content and nature of annual statement reporting.” After pushback from the broader insurance industry, NAIC made disclosure voluntary on a state-by-state basis. (Some states intend to move forward with the mandatory disclosure policies as planned.)

It’s true that there are many unanswered questions about exactly how rising temperatures will affect human health. But there’s mounting evidence that the impact will be significant, according to major research efforts from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and the calls climate change “an environmental health hazard of unprecedented scale and complexity.”

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