OHA Report: Climate Crisis a Current and Growing Threat to the Health of Oregonians

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) just released its “Climate and Health in Oregon 2020” report, documenting the public health impacts from climate change across Oregon. The report is the first thorough analysis of the health effects of climate change in Oregon since 2014, and is the first of three OHA deliverables directed under EO 20-04, the Oregon Climate Action Plan.

The report findings are grim, confirming what OEC has been saying all along– that climate change is a public health threat disproportionately affecting lower income communities, communities of color, tribal communities and frontline workers. Here are the main takeaways from OHA’s report for climate and health in Oregon:

  • Frontline workers are more at risk for heat related injuries, death and COVID-19.

“Our families and community members are living this every day, working tirelessly through heat and smoke to put food on your table and theirs. It’s helpful to have the state’s academic findings match our lived experiences. We’ve been telling lawmakers and others these impacts have been growing worse for years and yet we’re not seeing the action needed to match the challenge.” said Reyna Lopez, Executive Director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest farmworkers union. “Delays cost lives. In the short term, we need meaningful improvement in working safety standards, and then we must move quickly to improve equity and combat the climate crisis, so these burdens no longer fall hardest on those who can least afford them.”

Sadly, agricultural workers, fishers, forestry workers and hunters account for 20% of heat-related deaths in the United States. Farmworkers, the vast majority of whom in Oregon are Latinx immigrants, are particularly vulnerable due to social factors such as racism, language barriers, and lack of adequate housing. In urban areas, people who work and reside in urban heat islands (ie. construction workers) are also more at risk of climate-related health hazards.

Even worse, those most exposed and vulnerable to extreme heat, air pollution and other climate hazards are also most vulnerable to COVID-19. Already, communities of color and lower income communities suffer from systemic health and social inequities such as overcrowded housing, and inability to telework.

Our lawmakers and agencies must act swiftly to protect our most vulnerable communities. The next step for OHA to fulfill its mandates of OCAP is to jointly develop a proposal with Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for standards to protect workplace employees from exposure to wildfire smoke and excessive heat by June 30, 2021 . OEC plans to work with our frontline partners to advocate for the strongest protections possible.

  • Lower income and communities of color are also disproportionately impacted by our warming climate, smoke, and economic insecurity.

The intersection of racism and environmental degradation, economic disinvestment and population-wide health disparities is well documented. Lower income and rural Oregonians have a harder time adapting to climate change because they have fewer options available to them and less financial stability. They also tend to work in jobs that are outside or on the front lines and live in hotter areas that will be more vulnerable to climate-related food and housing insecurity.

For example, redlined neighborhoods in Portland, which are composed mostly of people of color, are on average 13°F hotter than wealthier neighborhoods. Similarly, lower income Oregonians (i.e. those living on less than $20,000 a year) report higher rates of asthma than Oregonians with higher household incomes. Currently, American Indian and African American people in Oregon experience higher rates of asthma than any other group in Oregon and bear most of the cost burdens in the healthcare system.

  • Some areas in Oregon will experience double the number of hot days by the year 2040—thereby exacerbating health illnesses

This past summer Oregonians experienced an unprecedented wildfire season amidst record setting heat waves. In the last 5 years, Oregon recorded its hottest years in state history (2015, 2016, 2018 and 2020) and had the lowest snowpack ever on record (2015). We declared a national disaster area for damage caused by extreme storms, floods and landslides for four years (2016, 2017, 2019, 2020).

These heat waves bring an increase of heat-related hospitalizations and respiratory illnesses, in addition to increased water insecurity, ozone pollution, airborne pollutants, molds, and allergens in the air. And If greenhouse gas emissions remain high, some places in Oregon will experience double the number of hot days (with temperatures above 86°F) by the year 2040—making health impacts even worse. 

  • The predicted wildfires have arrived.

“For the generation in power, they’re still operating under the idea the climate crisis is something to worry about another day. Young people are crying out for climate action because we’ve spent our lives living in the crisis. We know it’s here, harming our physical and mental health,” said Laura Krouse, Oregon Organizer for Our Climate. “Failure to act today is forfeiting our health and future. For young people of color, decades of disinvestment in families and communities means the existing burden on their health is only compounded by climate-fueled heat, smoke, water shortage, and anxiety.”

Unfortunately, in addition to hotter temperatures and heat waves, climate change is only predicted to significantly increase the number and intensity of wildfires in Oregon and the rest of the West. This past September bore witness to the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s recorded history. Severe droughts and extreme winds accelerated the severity of the 2020 wildfire events, which burned 1.07 million acres  and destroyed or severely over 4,000 homes—costing $354 million just in firefighting costs. The towns of Detroit in the Santiam Valley, Blue River and Vida in coastal Lane County, and Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon, were substantially destroyed.

At the peak of the wildfire events, 10%  checking into an emergency room or urgent care clinic reported asthma-like symptoms significantly above expected levels.

  • Climate change increases mental health illness in our youth.

The climate crisis takes a toll in many ways. Due to their age, children and youth will experience more cumulative physical and mental health effects of climate change, such as wildfires, evacuations, and other natural disasters over their lifetimes. These traumatic events and the uncertainty of future climate impacts increase the risk of anxiety, fear and toxic stress. And with increased mental illness comes increased substance abuse and violence.

Another mandate of OCAP is for OHA to conduct a study on the mental health impacts of climate change on our youth by June 30, 2021. With this knowledge will come the policy solutions to help mitigate the harm done.

 

Decision-makers in Oregon must act on climate to protect the health and lives of our most vulnerable families and communities.

 

“Climate change is a public health crisis. It is no longer acceptable or viable for our lawmakers to fail to take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the burning of fossil fuels,” said Jamie Pang, Environmental Health Program Director at Oregon Environmental Council. “From increasing asthma and respiratory illnesses, water systems contaminated with cyanotoxins, and increased rates of depression, anxiety, and mental illness, OHA’s report demonstrates that climate impacts are measurable and quantifiable for the lives of many Oregonians.”

However grim, all is not lost. The agency concluded that social resilience is the key to climate resilience and mitigation, and pledged to take the following actions to protect public health from climate impacts:  promote climate mitigation that maximizes health co-benefits (such as increased tree coverage in key neighborhoods; more efficient buildings), build our environmental health capacity, and improve our healthcare system to eliminate health inequities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To view our coalition press release, go here– https://oeconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Climate-Health-Crisis_-News-Release.pdf

 

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