America’s opioid epidemic has dominated the news media in recent years, as drug overdose deaths have escalated, decimating lives and families. And while climate change may not be top of mind in discussions about how to effectively deal with this crisis, it’s a factor that shouldn’t be ignored. Global warming spawns extreme weather, which begets destruction and despair, a dangerous scenario for people looking for a way to numb their emotional pain.

In 2016, more than 63,600 Americans died from drug overdoses, triple the 1999 rate. The overprescribing of opioid painkillers largely is driving this spike in deaths. But experts suggest that other things also are at work — including the effects of climate change.

Scientists who have been studying opioid deaths across the country believe that socioeconomic factors and natural disasters should become part of any national conversation about how to tackle America’s wave of opioid deaths. In recent years, global warming has fueled a growing number of turbulent weather events that have taken a grim toll on the human psyche.

“It is reasonable to expect that damage and destruction cause emotional and mental health problems and lead to drug abuse, both new and existing users,” said Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural and regional economics at Pennsylvania State University. “There are long-lasting effects of such calamities, and they do not tend to diminish.”

The rate of drug-related deaths rose in New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina. Source: Meri Davlasheridze

His data, which examined the trends for all U.S. counties over four decades, show an increase in drug-related deaths associated with natural disasters, particularly in rural areas. “Given that, in the United States, climatic disasters dominate disaster declarations and some of them — precipitation, floods, droughts — may become more frequent and intense due to climate change, our results do indicate we may see increased deaths from opioids, all else unchanged,” he said.

The incidence of drug deaths in New Orleans, for example, between 1999 and 2004 was 3.45 drug deaths per 100,000 people, a rate that rose to 16.1 between 2005 — when Hurricane Katrina struck — and 2014, according to Meri Davlasheridze, assistant professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M, who is working with Goetz. Areas affected by Superstorm Sandy also showed a sharp increase in drug death rates after 2012, she said. “There are many factors that contributed to this rise, and disasters are one of them,” she said.

The rate of drug-related deaths rose in counties impacted by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy rose in the years after the storm. Source: Meri Davlasheridze

Declining incomes, unemployment and shrinking populations also have an impact on overdose death rates, Goetz said. “Counties losing population have higher death rates, and to the extent that rural areas are losing more population density than urban, they are experiencing higher mortality rates,” he said.

Furthermore, where farms see a $10,000 reduction in net income, opioid overdoses rise by 10 percent on average, he said. “And in years of farm recession — drops of income by 20 percent or more from one year to the next — that effect was doubled: a 20 percent increase in overdoses,” he said.

Surprisingly, they also found that the self-employed had lower rates of overdose, suggesting that self-employment is a deterrent to drug use. “Sometimes we think of the self-employed, or entrepreneurs as more stressed and as people who might be looking for an escape from those pressures, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in opioid use,” Goetz said.

The scientists speculate that one additional reason opioid deaths have hit rural counties hard is because there are too few mental health treatment facilities available, and people suffering from substance abuse fear the stigma associated with seeking treatment. “If you have a problem, you might not know where to go for help,” Goetz said. “We’re thinking that one of the things we need to investigate in the future is whether awareness is the problem — or is there a stigma?”

The researchers presented their as-yet-unpublished findings at a recent meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association. The data cover all counties for more than 40 years, from 1970–2014.

Damage from Hurricane Sandy, 2012. Source: FEMA

“We are trying to determine the independent effects of different variables, while holding others constant,” he said. “So, with the same unemployment rate across counties, an increase in incomes would lead to a lower overdose rate. Or, holding income and unemployment and other variables constant, one additional presidentially-declared natural disaster per year increases the death rate by a given percentage.”

The researchers used disasters identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out the effects of such natural disasters as hurricanes, droughts and floods. “If climatologists’ warnings are correct, a changing climate could produce more extreme weather patterns, which could then have an effect on opioid overdoses and deaths,” Goetz said.

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.