By Catherine Clabby
Climate change is likely to increase health risks in locations around this country due to rising temperatures, extreme weather events and movements by disease-causing vectors into new terrain, U.S. EPA officials have concluded.
But the perils will not be identical everywhere. Consider an example shared Thursday at a symposium exploring potential health effects from climate change in Eastern North Carolina.
Many national studies says elderly people living in cities, often described as “heat islands,” are at highest risk of health-related illness when extreme temperatures spike, said Ashley R. Ward, a geographer with the Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments. CISA conducts research that incorporates climate data into research related to public management of water, health and coastal management.
But hospital emergency department statistics and other data here show that people are more likely to develop heat-related illness on abnormally hot days, when temperatures range between 90 to 100 degrees, rather than on exceptionally hot ones above 100 degrees, when people seem to taking precautions.
And, it turns out, men between 18 to 44 years of age, not the elderly, are at highest risk in North Carolina of having a heat-related illness, which can be lethal. And they are more likely to live in the country than the city, and may well work outdoors.
“This highlights the need for more place-based research on a smaller scale,” said Ward, whose organization is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A focus on the local was precisely what Greg Kearney, an East Carolina University assistant professor of public health, was aiming for at the Greenville gathering where he and co-organizers invited students, county health department staff, faculty and others to consider how to better respond to climate change in their backyards.
That was the goal despite stated skepticism by some political leaders in this state and the Trump administration, including newly chosen leaders of the U.S. EPA, about the threat posed by climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists agree that the burning of coal, the driving of gas-powered vehicles and other human activities emit lingering carbon dioxide that is warming Earth’s atmosphere and changing our climate.
The southeastern United States has not warmed as much as other parts of the country, according to EPA data. But climate models have indicated that an increase in average annual temperature of 1.5 to 3.5°F could occur in the Southeast between 2021-2050, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services report North Carolina Climate and Health Profile.
Hurricane wind speeds and rainfall rates here are expected to increase with warming, the EPA has said. It’s a prospect of particular interest to public health professionals in the eastern part of the state, where devastating flooding hit after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and again from Hurricane Matthew last fall.
The latest update to the state’s Climate and Health Adaptation Plan pinpointed potential climate-related health impacts from smoke produced by wildfires, which have struck in both eastern and western North Carolina in recent years.
The plan also designates heat-related illness as a climate-linked concern, particularly for men 25-64 years of age living in rural areas, potentially as a result of occupational exposures.
But figuring out precisely who is most at risk to overexposure to heat is going to take more study, said Lauren Thie, an epidemiologist with the DHHS division of public health.
“There is a real paucity of data. It’s probably not people working on tobacco farms because that has become so mechanized,” she said.
Game plans needed
Some more surprising potential problems may be lurking on the horizon.
George Luber, chief of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said one concern is the possibility that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could reduce protein levels in some staple crops.
“Early on the hope was that CO2 would improve agricultural production,” Luber said, who delivered his talk to the symposium Thursday via a video link.
Participants on Thursday did not simply listen. After breaking into small groups near the end of the program, they brainstormed about how to better dig into local climate change effects in order to help protect people. The result was a flood of ideas such as recruiting helpers to set up water stations for agriculture workers when the risk of heat illness is highest as well as educating farmers and food industry executives about the emerging hazard.
Enforcing existing rules limiting where anyone can set a fire to burn trash or yard refuse was another idea that came out the session. Other pitches: prohibit building in flood zones, develop better technologies to block animal waste from large-scale livestock farms from washing into waterways, and create a system of flags, similar to those used to alert beachgoers of rip tides, to warn people about high heat.
Christopher Mansfield, a professor of Public Health at ECU, took on the political aspects of climate change directly after listening to the propositions. He urged participants to direct any anxiety they feel about changes in the federal environmental policy into action on behalf of people here, particularly those who are poor and most vulnerable.
“This could become an agenda for a lot of people in public health. A lot of this is going to have to be speaking truth to power,” Mansfield said.
Scott LaVigne, acting health director in Franklin County, said he would leave the meeting better informed about how to talk to people in his county about climate change. One key is to engage and respect local knowledge about how the climate is changing.
“When you hear the term global warming and [you] live in Franklin County, it’s easy to say that doesn’t apply to me,” LaVigne said.
“But people can remember when there used to be more snow,” he said. “And when the rain used to come down more gently, and now it just pours.”