09/22/2014 11:23 EDT | Updated 11/22/2014 05:59 EST

Climate change called public health threat by medical journal

Climate change poses risks to human health just as pollution and lack of sanitation did a century ago, says a medical journal editorial that details the potential harmful health effects and the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In Monday’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reviewed studies on health risks related to climate change and the value of attempts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

The research is being released as world leaders prepare for the UN summit on climate change in New York on Tuesday.

The researchers said that harm from climate change includes:

- Respiratory disorders, including those made worse by fine particular pollutants, such as asthma, and allergic diseases.

- Infectious diseases, including those transmitted by mosquitoes, and water-borne illnesses, such as childhood gastrointestinal diseases.

- Food insecurity, including reduced crop yields and an increase in plant diseases.

- Mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that are associated with natural disasters.

"Evidence over the past 20 years indicates that climate change can be associated with adverse health outcomes," Dr. Jonathan Patz of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his colleagues concluded.

"Health professionals have an important role in understanding and communicating potential health concerns related to climate change, as well as the co-benefits from burning less fossil fuels," Patz said.

The researchers' analysis of the data suggests that in the U.S., many cities will experience more frequent extreme heat days. For example, New York City and Milwaukee could have three times their current average number of days hotter than 32 C, which would exacerbate heat stress.

They also summarize evidence on global trends in temperature, precipitation, sea level rise and ocean acidification.

Patz’s team said that reducing use of fossil fuels has documented benefits such as increases in labour productivity and lower costs to the health system.

An editorial that accompanies the study is titled "Climate Change: A Continuing Threat to the Health of the World’s Population."

"The great gains in well-being in the 20th century occurred because of the concerted effort to improve the health of entire populations," Dr. Howard Bauchner concluded in the editorial.

"Today, in the early part of the 21st century, it is critical to recognize that climate change poses the same threat to health as the lack of sanitation, clean water, and pollution did in the early 20th century," he wrote.