by Chrissy Esposito, Colorado Health Institute, Data Visualization and Policy Analyst
Featured in the March/April 2019 Colorado Medicine.
Heart disease, diabetes, asthma. Physicians are well acquainted with these maladies. But they might not understand how a warming climate can worsen health for patients with these conditions.
New research from the Colorado Health Institute shows that patients in certain regions of Colorado are at an especially high risk for climate-related health impacts.
Much of the public discussion on climate change in Colorado focuses on the mountain environment – impacts on snowpack levels, wildlife habitat and recreation. CHI’s research reveals that it’s a different story for human health risks related to the climate. While risks exist for mountain residents, people at lower elevations tend to be more vulnerable to climate change.
The climate and health connection
Climate change affects health in many ways. Colorado is experiencing rising temperatures, worsening air quality, and an uptick in environmental disasters such as wildfire and drought.
The numbers tell the story. Colorado’s average temperature has risen two degrees Fahrenheit in the past three decades. Looking ahead, climate models indicate the state’s average temperature could be 2.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher by 2050.
Extreme heat affects cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems. Heat also “cooks” pollutants already in our air into ground-level ozone, which harms cardiovascular health.
Climate change is also felt in the environment. Last year was one of the worst on record for wildfires in Colorado. Smoke contains particulate matter that irritates the eyes, nose and throat, and aggravates respiratory problems. Wildfires can be deadly and survivors may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study last year
in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems.
Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It’s a threat multiplier that impacts social and health disparities in Colorado.
For example, residents in lower-income communities are less likely to have financial means to cope with heat or extreme weather events, such as by installing air conditioning or having a place to evacuate to in case of a fire or flood. People with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) struggle to breathe when air quality is poor. Older adults are more likely to have compromised immune systems and chronic ailments, conditions that can worsen when temperatures soar.
CHI’s health and climate index
Understanding the connection between our changing climate and health involves looking at this threat from multiple perspectives.
Human health can be impacted by exposure factors, such as wildfires and heat. Demographic factors – age, health status, income level and more – also come into play. Health can also be affected by a community’s level of readiness, measured by perceptions about climate change and the political will to address it.
CHI examined data on 24 factors involving exposure, sensitive populations and readiness to create its Health and Climate Index, a first-of-its-kind effort in Colorado to quantify local effects of climate change.
Our results found that the northwest and southeast corners of Colorado are more vulnerable for exposure factors due to a high number of days above 90 degrees F. In the northwest, this increases the risk of wildfire; in the southeast, it’s drought.
Residents in southeast Colorado are most vulnerable in terms of demographics. The region has a higher than average proportion of residents who are living in poverty and have chronic health issues such as asthma, diabetes, COPD and cardiovascular disease.
The northeast corner of Colorado is most vulnerable in terms of readiness. The region has the lowest proportion of residents who believe that climate change is occurring, and there are no public health or local government plans to address the issue.
This Health and Climate Index is a snapshot of data from a given year. It does not track how Colorado’s climate is changing or who will be most at risk in the future. Rather, it is a tool that can be used by policymakers and health professionals to raise awareness and craft initiatives to protect the environment and the health of their neighbors.
By acknowledging that climate change is occurring and enacting policies to combat it, we can reduce the negative impacts to human health and adapt to the changes we are already seeing.
Physicians can use this tool to assess the relative risks for patients in their practices. For example, “treatments” for asthma or cardiovascular disease in Mesa County, which has more extreme heat days than most parts of Colorado, could include advice to avoid the outdoors on hot days and, if possible, install a home cooling system.
The climate is changing, and our understanding of the drivers of health must change along with it.