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Hotter summers, wetter winters mean more health problems for county

A new Multnomah County report released this week predicts that heat waves, air quality and mosquitoes will worsen countywide because of climate change.

In the first-ever analysis of how rising temperature and changes in precipitation will affect Multnomah County residents, Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Justin Denny said there is cause for concern.

“For the first time, we’ve identified the specific health issues that our community will face,’’ said Denny, who has been overseeing the health departments in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties following the retirement of Dr. Gary Oxman in January. “But we’ve also identified ways the community can protect people and help them adapt to conditions ahead.’’

The “Climate Change and Public Health Preparation Plan’’ was released Wednesday, Oct. 9, at a news conference in Northeast Portland to an audience of nearly 40 residents, members of the media and county employees.

Temperatures already have risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in this region in the past century, according to the report. And last month was one of the wettest Septembers since 1872. Researchers expect drier, hotter summers and warmer, wetter winters in Multnomah County.

Denny identified three key problems:

n Heat waves are becoming more common and can have an even greater effect in such a historically mild climate. Warming is most intense along Portland’s I-5 corridor and in urban heat islands, or areas with lots of asphalt and few trees.

n Air pollution will get worse, causing more respiratory diseases such as asthma and allergies.

n Mosquito season will last longer and new, disease-bearing kinds are expected to move in.

Multnomah County’s response:

n Do a better job of tracking heat-related health problems and hazards while educating the community on how to prevent them.

n Continue working with families to improve indoor air quality, continue collaborating with other agencies to improve outdoor air quality, better track air quality and connect those suffering to services.

n Continue monitoring mosquito-borne disease, work with building and zoning authorities to reduce habitat and reach out to residents in areas where mosquitos thrive.

The report’s lead author, Kari Lyons-Eubanks, said the report shows those most vulnerable are our elders, the homeless, people of color and low-income community members.

“These are the same communities that experience disparities in health outcomes already,’’ she said.

Lyons-Eubanks said those most vulnerable often live in substandard housing conditions that already have mold and mildew, which exacerbate their children’s asthma. They are elders who are socially isolated and may not be mobile but live in a heat island. And they may have limited access to parks and greenspaces because they lack control over their housing choices.

“They’re the ones who don’t have the means to adapt or get out of town,’’ she said.

The report was one of the key steps agreed upon in the 2009 Multnomah County/City of Portland Climate Action Plan, the 40-year roadmap of what residents can expect.

“Just knowing this information makes a difference in the way that we consider funding and structuring our work because it’s the data we need to make strong, effective decisions,’’ said County Commissioner Loretta Smith.

“This report arms us for a better future,” said Ben Duncan, of Multnomah County’s Health Equity Initiative.



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