Climate Change Hits Home

Lillian Shirley, Director  Oregon Health Authority   Public Health Division

Lillian Shirley, Director
Oregon Health Authority

Public Health Division

Last fall, as we watched in horror as wildfires ravaged Northern California, we were reminded of our own state’s “summer of smoke.” Oregon is fortunate to have been spared the tragic loss of life and property associated with wildfires that our neighbors to the south have seen. But the wildfire smoke that choked many communities across our state—in southern Oregon and along the Coast, to the central Cascades and the Columbia River Gorge—still had a huge impact on public health. Many of us experiencing the smoke that clogged our cities and towns wondered if the wildfire smoke in our communities would become a nose-burning, tear-inducing fact of life. For many of our fellow Oregonians, the effects are more serious, triggering emergency room visits for asthma and heart-related maladies. Total emergency department and urgent care visits were above expected levels, with asthma and other respiratory-related visits peaking on September 5, 2017 at 583 visits statewide, a 20 percent increase over the number of visits expected for that day.

Like a lot of people, I look outside and wonder if every summer is going to be like this, and I think the signs are pointing more and more toward yes.
— Brendon Haggerty, Multnomah County Health Department

One thing is certain: the 2017 wildfire season in Oregon was one of the most visible examples of how a climate-related hazard can impact human health. Unfortunately, Oregon’s changing climate conditions are increasing the likelihood of wild fires (2017 Oregon Climate Assessment Report) meaning we can expect more frequent and more intense smoke events in the years to come.

Based on climate projections, the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division produced a risk assessment that outlines climate-related health risks and a new Climate and Health Resilience Plan that provides a framework for Oregon’s public health system to take action. Although we’re making some progress, a recent Public Health Modernization Assessment Report found that over 90 percent of local health departments in Oregon have only partial-to-minimal ability to identify and address environmental hazards. The findings highlight that our system is not currently equipped to handle the complex and emerging risks that climate change creates. In order to support the health of all people in Oregon – where they live, work, learn and play, – we need to upgrade our public health system.

The statewide Oregon Values and Beliefs survey found that 74 percent of all Oregonians agree that protecting our water and air quality is very important. People indigenous to this area have understood the health of the land and water to be interconnected with human health for time immemorial. This past spring, our Climate and Health Program partnered with tribal members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to digitize personal stories of how climate change is affecting community health here in Oregon. The series of short videos help to illustrate how Native American communities are on the front lines of climate change.

Here in Oregon, communities of color and low income communities have higher rates of chronic diseases like asthma and heart disease, and climate change threatens to increase these existing health disparities. In this way, climate change acts as a ‘risk multiplier,’ multiplying risks already greater in communities affected by current and historical inequities.

Air Quality Planning in Crook County
Making sure that we have clean air to breathe is an important way that we can protect our community’s health, but with climate change it can be an uphill battle.
— Muriel DeLavergne-Brown, Crook County Health Department Director

As we grapple with these challenges, we can maximize our impact by looking to solutions through an equity lens and through collaborative change. Adapting to climate change and taking actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to bring about significant health benefits. For instance, active transportation and green infrastructure investments in low-income areas could result in improved air quality and improved population health. In fact, responding to climate change could be the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century.  

However, even if we take the most aggressive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we still must prepare to cope with the serious adverse effects already unfolding.

Unfortunately, we probably haven’t seen the worst wildfire season yet, and we likely will see more climate-related spikes in emergency room visits. With poor air quality acting as a trigger for asthma and heart attacks, and with over 25 percent of adults in Oregon already living with chronic diseases like asthma and heart disease, one of those future emergency room visits could potentially be someone you know and love. This is when climate change gets real. This is when it hits home. And this is what is beginning to happen across our state.


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