Doctors address climate change concerns

Senior Reporter
Tuesday, November 5, 2019
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Lori Byron, left, and husband Robert delivered a presentation on how climate change impacts public health during the Rotary Club’s meeting Monday at the Elks.

Photo by Charlie Denison

Before every Rotary International meeting in Lewistown, Rotarians recite the four-way test, which they consider an ethical guide for the things we think, say or do: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

On Monday, this four-way test applied to climate change, as Drs. Robert and Lori Byron of Hardin led a discussion called “Climate Change: Opportunity for Service.” 

The Byrons were guests of Rotary member Alana Kuehn, who invited them after Rotary International President Barry Rassin addressed climate change as an issue of importance. 

Robert spoke first. An internist who has worked 20-plus years on the Crow Reservation, Robert has been passionate about health for decades. More recently, however, climate change has become a primary passion. He is highly involved with Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and is a member of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

Why is this his focus? 

“About 7-10 years ago I started looking around and paying a little more attention to the scientific evidence and literature,” he said in an interview following his presentation. “I finally came to the conclusion that if we don’t do anything about climate change, what we do in the exam room won’t matter.”

Robert further explained his inspiration for getting invested in climate change using the four-way test.

Is climate change the truth? He believes it is.

“What we’ve seen over the past 100 years or so is almost unprecedented,” he said. 

Is it fair to all concerned?

“Climate change is absolutely not fair,” he said. “It’s impacting those who are least able to do anything about it first. Eventually it will be nondiscriminatory. It will impact us all.”

Will it build good will and better friendships?

“Well, climate change itself certainly will not, but our solutions to it very well could and should,” he said. “And will it be beneficial to all concerned? Climate change itself won’t, but our solutions will.”

Many of these solutions are already in place, but more can be done, be it by Rotarians, medical providers or others. People need to step up right away, Robert said, as there is no time to waste, and climate change has dire effects, not just on the environment, but on the health and well-being of everyone.

“Climate change is very important to our health,” he said, “and we need to do something about it.”

As climate pressures such as higher temperatures and extreme precipitation events evolve, there are negative outcomes, be it air pollution, water contamination, changes in vector ecology (mosquitoes, ticks) and a variety of other negative health outcomes, including heat stroke, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal illness, vector-borne diseases (Lyme, West Nile, Zika, etc.) worsening mental health and physical trauma. 

“As I said before, climate change is not fair,” Robert said. “The most vulnerable people are children and the elderly. Pregnant women are at higher risk for complications with climate change for a lot of reasons.”

Why is this happening?

According to Robert, climate change is largely a result of air pollution.

“Air pollution results in about 107,000 additional deaths every year in the United States,” he said. “There are also 150,000 hospitalizations, 18 million lost work days and 11 million missed school days attributed to air pollution, and it will get worse with climate change.”

Agricultural communities are particularly at risk, Robert added, as heat-related impacts can lead to decreased crop yields and other agricultural losses.

Water contamination is another concern, Robert said, adding it has led to an uptick in foodborne and waterborne diseases.

“With climate change here in Montana we expect to see early snow melt, more rain in the spring, longer droughts and more precipitation in the fall,” said Robert. “We also expect to see that coming in much smaller bursts over shorter periods of time, which leads to flooding. Flooding overwhelms our system. In rural settings, this results in a lot more agricultural runoff and contamination of our water, as well.”

Runoff can contribute to contaminated water and waterborne disease outbreaks leading to diarrhea.

Lori – a pediatrician – followed Robert by sharing concerns on how climate change can affect maternal-child health.

“Babies are really sensitive to everything that happens to their mom, and when their mom breathes in particulate matter – little dust particles from air pollution – it affects the baby,” Lori said.

Particulate matter can come from a variety of places, Lori said, be it dust, wildfires, fossil fuel power plants or even exhaust pipes. When pregnant women breathe in this matter, it potentially can have serious consequences, as can excess heat waves, that increase the amount of  particulate matter present in the air. More particulate matter and more heat can contribute to birth defects, intrauterine growth retardation, premature birth and childhood obesity.

Malnutrition and food insecurity are also major climate-related issues that affect children. This is a growing concern for Lori, as she feels the more carbon dioxide, the less nutrition there is in the food we grow.

“Plants like carbon dioxide,” she said. “The reason they like it is so they photosynthesize better so they make more carbohydrates. If you have more carbohydrates, you have less protein, and you have less of all the micronutrients in those vegetables your mother told you to eat. The food is less healthy in an environment with higher carbon dioxide.”

This is a direct result of heat waves, Lori said, and she believes this will become more of a problem here as the years progress. Such extreme weather events can also lead to pestilence, as fungus, bacteria and insects are more present, live longer and become more of a problem.

“This has potential to affect agriculture a lot,” she said.


Where do we go from here?

According to Lori, climate change is a problem that is “bigger than changing our light bulbs and insulating our homes.”

“All the personal actions we can do really aren’t enough,” she said. “We have to see action on a national level. We need to see action legislatively. We need to talk about it. Climate change has become so politicized, people don’t think they can talk about it.”

Robert expounded on this following the presentation.

“Start the conversation,” he said. “A lot gets done over a cup of coffee, but this is scary, it’s daunting. There is no one solution; there are a lot of solutions. All of them can help, but we have to talk about them.

Robert urges people who are interested in helping get the word out to get started right away.

“This is a climate crisis,” he said. “What we put into the atmosphere that is contributing to climate change now will be there for hundreds of years. We’ve got to stop doing it. We’ve got to stop polluting the atmosphere.” 

Lori encourages those interested in getting involved to write their Congressmen, write an op-ed in the newspaper or get involved with local organizations. 

“Climate change is here, it is human-caused, it is affecting human health now, and it really needs urgent action,” she said after the meeting.

Those wanting more information can go to the Montana Health Professionals for Healthy Climate’s website,