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Warmer climate imperils health

Science — Oregon Public Health Division report highlights personal impacts of global warming


Polls show climate change doesn’t rank among Oregonians’ uppermost concerns, perhaps because it’s so overwhelming or abstract in their daily lives.

Less snow on Mount Hood? We can live with that.

More heat waves? Turn up the air conditioning.

But tell folks to expect an upsurge in asthma, and more mosquitos and ticks spreading West Nile and Lyme disease, and everyone can relate.

That may be an important benefit of a new Oregon Public Health Division report on the health impacts from climate change, unveiled at a recent meeting of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

“What the public health folks did was really useful,” said commission chairman Angus Duncan, because everyone’s concerned about their health or their children’s health. “That starts to get people thinking, ‘maybe I’m personally at risk here.’ ”

More diseases

“The carriers of Dengue fever didn’t use to be able to live here,” health division director Lillian Shirley told the global warming commission when the report was introduced. But mosquitos carrying the virus have been found in the Deep South and California, she noted.

Some scientists fear a warming climate could bring Dengue fever and malaria to Oregon, said Dr. Bruce Gutelius, deputy state epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division. But an increase in Lyme and West Nile diseases is more likely, he said.

Air pollution

Oregon already is seeing an increase in forest fires that many trace to climate change, and those are expected to become more common and severe.

Portland-area residents might have noticed chest soreness when winds pushed smoke from forest fires this direction in September.

“Those fine particles from wildfire can get lodged into peoples’ lungs,” Gutelius said.

Hotter, sunnier weather also leads to an increase in ozone in the air. Ozone, a prime component of smog, is known to trigger asthma attacks and emphysema, he said.

Among adults, Oregon has the sixth-highest rate of asthma in the nation. Roughly one in 10 Oregon children and adults have asthma.

A warmer climate also will alter the types of plants and trees that grow or thrive here, increasing the amount of ragweed, birch and other species that trigger allergic reactions, Gutelius said.

Water issues

As Portlanders witnessed recently in the Willamette River, unseasonably warm weather can lead to outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae.

As snowmelt declines and rivers get replenished less in the spring, it’s not just the salmon that will suffer. The water quality of rivers will be degraded, Gutelius said, as they have less volume to flush out or dilute harmful substances. There also will be more standing water, prime breeding habitat for mosquitos.

Heat waves

Oregon hasn’t had a high number of deaths from heat waves as in Chicago, Paris and elsewhere. But we’re getting more heat waves lately and that’s likely to intensify.

A 2013 federal study of Northwest weather found the number of intense heat episodes was about 70 percent above the long-term average during the past 20 years. Five of the top 10 years occurred in the past two decades.

“Urban environments that have that issue are going to see more incidents of illness and death related to that issue,” Gutelius said.

Large cities are more prone to extreme heat, because the concentration of asphalt and concrete and lack of forest canopy lead to the “urban heat island” effect.

A 2014 report by Climate Central found that Portland’s average summer temperatures since 1970 have been 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than nearby rural areas. Among 60 large U.S. cities studied, only Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Denver had greater temperature gains from the urban heat island effect, according to the Princeton, N.J., nonprofit.

Oregonians are more vulnerable to extreme heat because we often lack air conditioning and other adaptations that are common elsewhere. Our bodies are not as physiologically adapted to hot weather, Gutelius said.

Uneven impacts

As the state’s new Oregon Climate and Health Profile Report makes clear, issues will vary considerably depending on in which part of the state one lives.

Residents near the rainy Oregon coast are more likely to experience extreme storms, flooding and landslides. People living near Bend and other mountainous areas will be exposed to more wildfires.

Oregon already faces more drought

Older people, the poor and people of color face some of the most health risks from climate change.

“Those are populations with disproportionate levels of disease and disability,” Gutelius said. “Those tend to be people who already have health disparities of many kinds.”

The new state report was funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and its Climate Ready States initiative. The state, working with county health departments, will use the report as a launch pad to help communities take steps to avert dramatic climate change and make adaptations to alleviate some of its worst impacts.

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