OHA report on climate change and health exposes inequities

A new climate change report from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA)  says that as natural disasters worsen, the health effects of these events will disproportionately affect communities of color, tribal communities, and people of lower income status. 


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The report, Climate and Health in Oregon 2020 report, builds on the findings of the 2014 Oregon Climate and Health Report. The 2014 report warned of increased risk of injury, illness, and death due to rising temperatures, increasing wildfires, and other extreme weather events. 

Since the 2014 report was published, Oregon has already experienced significant impacts from climate change. The state has seen its hottest years on record, with 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2020 all in the top 10 hottest years in Oregon history. The state also saw the lowest snowpack on record in 2015. In 2018, Salem drinking water was contaminated with cyanotoxins that resulted from algal blooms caused by high temperatures. 

The 2020 report describes climate hazards, recent events, future climate projections, and examples of public health action. It emphasizes that the effects of climate change are felt most by marginalized communities. The report also states that the continuation of these events will cause disruptions in local economies, social safety net systems, and housing.

In 2020, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the country, Oregon experienced its worst wildfire season on record. The 2020 wildfires caused one million acres in damage and damaged or destroyed more than 4,000 homes. In comparison, in 2015, the next worst year, only 56 residences were lost due to the fires.

At the peak of the 2020 wildfire events, data showed that one in 10 people who checked into an emergency department or urgent care clinic reported asthma-like symptoms due to air-quality levels. Wildfires also happen most often during peak harvest season, causing farmworkers, who are often migrant workers, to choose between their health and putting food on the table for their families. Farmworkers also reported a lack of access to personal protective equipment for the pandemic and for responding to air quality. 

“We’re seeing more heat-related hospitalizations during summer heat waves and more asthma-like ER visits during wildfires,” said Rachael Banks, Oregon Public Health Division director. “We’re feeling the effects of these disasters and unfortunately we know they are only going to get worse.”

The report expects that the state will see more frequent wildfires, which they say will increase respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and other poor health outcomes in the next decades. There are expected increases in average and extreme temperature that are projected to increase the number of heat-related hospitalizations and deaths. The displacement and income loss associated with these climate impacts will increase the risk of homelessness, food insecurity, and mental health effects says the report. 

“The current global pandemic further exposes these inequities and makes addressing the climate crises even more challenging,” said Patrick Allen, OHA director. “The mental health effects of these compounding disasters cannot be overlooked. Traumatic events like the recent wildfires, as well as the anxiety and fear about what the future holds, are having very real impacts on peoples’ daily well-being.”

The populations most exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19 are also the populations that will experience the most adverse effects of climate change, says the report. Communities of color, tribal communities, and rural communities are already disproportionately affected by social, economic, and environmental impacts created by current and historical systems of oppression.

The report cited a national study that reported that Black and African American people throughout the United States are more likely to live in neighborhoods with fewer trees and more heat trapping pavement. The same study also found that Black Americans are more likely to die of heat-related causes than other ethnic and racial groups. A recent study in Portland linked the city’s worst heat islands with discriminatory housing policies that were in place until the 1950s that made it illegal to sell houses to Black people in white neighborhoods.

While the challenges are complex and far reaching, work is already being done to combat rising temperatures and climate change related events.

 “Together with partners, the Public Health Division is working to raise awareness of the inequitable ways climate change affects Oregonians and the actions we can take today to build community resilience across our state,” Banks said.

To accomplish this goal, OHA led the development of an interagency Climate Agency Blueprint in October 2020 to assist state agencies in integrating equity in their climate considerations and planning. In the coming year, they plan to also work with organizations serving tribal and rural communities on projects that support culturally specific solutions to wildfire recovery and resilience. 

“Working with our community partners to prevent and prepare for climate change will further enable us to address some of the root causes of health inequities and preventable diseases in Oregon,” Banks said.