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‘We have our work cut out for us’: Conn. experts say climate change becomes the greatest threat to public health

Tropical Storm Henri
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Bob Conyers crosses a flooded parking lot to check on his family-operated hardware store after Tropical Storm Henri made landfall in New England on Aug. 22, 2021.

It was 10 years ago, but when Lori Mathieu thinks about extreme weather events, she remembers Hurricane Irene.

“Which was a hurricane that turned into a tropical storm, but hit us pretty hard,” she said. “And then we had that incredibly odd snowstorm that hit us while the leaves were still on the trees.”

And then, of course, Superstorm Sandy comes to mind. It hit New England just a year later and killed five in Connecticut. More recent storms and major flooding events have continued to cause damage.

“We certainly have to adapt and be resilient and prepared for whatever comes our way,” said Mathieu, who works for the state Department of Public Health.

According to scientists and environmental experts, hurricanes and other events will happen with more frequency or greater intensity if major steps aren’t taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a warming planet. What’s clear is that human health and safety are increasingly at risk.

“We see it as being perhaps the greatest public health challenge or threat of our century,” said Dr. Robert Dubrow, an epidemiologist and faculty director of the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health at the Yale School of Public Health.

President Joe Biden will join other world leaders next month in Glasgow, Scotland, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties.

Ahead of the event, more than 450 organizations, including the Yale center, representing millions of health care workers worldwide released a call to action to address the climate crisis by bringing attention to how the situation has exacerbated existing health issues and brought on new ones.

“Everyone isn’t equal when it comes to climate change,” Dubrow said. “On the one hand, no one is going to get away free, it’s going to affect everyone eventually. But on the other hand, it’s true that it affects some populations much more than others.”

The impacts of climate change on Connecticut residents’ health run a long range of direct and indirect outcomes.

A 2020 report by the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health found there were on average 422 emergency department visits and 45 hospitalizations per year for heat stress in Connecticut from 2007 to 2016.

“We’re seeing more heat waves, and heat kills people,” Dubrow said. “And a particular concern is occupational heat exposure, because people who work outdoors have no choice.”

The aftereffects of hurricanes have sparked mental health trauma in survivors, disruptions to routine medical services and waterborne diseases. Nine federal disaster declarations for weather events were issued for Connecticut from 2010 to 2019, compared with only 13 in the previous 56 years, the report showed.

Heavy precipitation has increased in New Haven, Hartford, Litchfield, Tolland, and Windham counties, which can and has led to a growth of tick and mosquito populations.

“They multiply faster. At least for mosquitoes, they take their blood meals or, you know, they bite people more frequently,” Dubrow said, “and the pathogens they carry might actually themselves multiply faster, so that’s a concern.”

No matter the kind of climate change-induced event, the health consequences have disproportionately impacted vulnerable and disadvantaged groups of people.

Low-income neighborhoods, people who are homeless, residents with chronic health conditions, and people who are uninsured are more likely to experience health consequences.

Mathieu, chief of DPH’s environmental health and drinking water branch, said climate change can also widen existing racial health disparities even further.

“Health equity to us means access to clean water, clean air, clean land. And climate change is putting a big stress on all of these things,” she said. “I think people realize that things are changing. Maybe some people realize that it’s changing more quickly for them, versus other people.”

DPH was recently awarded a five-year federal grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify likely impacts of climate change in communities and come up with solutions on how to adapt to related health issues.

Other New England grant recipients include the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Vermont Agency of Human Services.

“There’s so many different pieces and parts to this, whether it’s water, whether it’s drought, whether it’s the impact of heat, whether it’s the mental health aspect or the food aspect … we have a great foundation, but there’s so much work to do,” Mathieu said.

DPH will work with other state agencies like the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, as well as with experts at places like the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health.

In its first year, leaders plan to create an educational program for teachers, school nurses, administrators and other school staff to reduce student exposure to extreme heat and air pollution. They will also come up with guidance for heat and air quality response plans in local communities.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Mathieu said.

The grant program funds run through 2026. Meanwhile, other scientists and researchers will continue to focus on how to reduce global fossil fuel burning and other human activities that have become the main drivers of climate change.

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