“These findings are critically important given that climate change is anticipated to increase the frequency and severity of droughts.”
— Michelle Bell, Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health and senior author
This study does not address how drought specifically triggers these health outcomes. However, one possibility is that drought changes growing seasons or impacts the allergens that influence respiratory illnesses. Dry conditions also trigger more dust and particulate matter in the air. Then there are the mental health-related stressors associated with drought, including for farmers or ranchers whose livelihoods are affected by dry conditions.
While further research can examine these different factors, Berman said, the new findings provide an important basis. “Because this was an initial study, we wanted to capture as wide a picture as we could and not isolate ourselves to a tiny snapshot,” he said.
The good news, Berman says, is that droughts, unlike other extreme weather events, are slow moving. “Since health risks appear to increase with drought severity, you have time to enact clinical interventions to help avoid some of these adverse health outcomes,” he said. “Once we’re able to identify the mechanisms behind these effects, we can intervene before drought reaches that severe stage. Other environmental hazards, such as heat waves, occur without warning and we are not afforded this opportunity.”
“I am so delighted to have had the opportunity to collaborate with the Yale and the Hopkins teams to conduct such important study,” said co-author Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics and co-Director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative.
Other researchers included Keita Ebisu, a postdoctoral associate at F&ES and Roger Peng, a professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public.
The study was funded by the Yale Institute of Biospheric Studies, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.