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Climate change is increasing cardiac events. It's also fueling racial health disparities

Orange, CA - November 01: The emergency room entrance at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, on Tuesday, November 1, 2022.
Mark Rightmire
MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images
Orange, CA - November 01: The emergency room entrance at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, on Tuesday, November 1, 2022.

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The health risks of human-induced climate change are expected to drive up cardiovascular deaths nationwide as Americans confront more extreme heat. But the impacts won’t be equal, with new research projecting Black people to be seven times more likely to die from heat-induced heart events.

Already, emergency room doctors are seeing an increase in trauma and asthma cases as a result of extreme heat, said Dr. Brooks Walsh, an emergency room physician at Bridgeport Hospital.

“It's just astonishing how this latest study shows how it's going to disproportionately affect Black populations further,” Walsh said. “And Bridgeport is a good example of that – being what they call an urban heat island, where temperatures can be higher there because of lack of tree cover, increased paved surfaces.”

The new research, from the American Heart Association, highlights the unequal impacts of extreme heat on cardiac deaths in certain populations.

The American Heart Association’s projected deaths are based on a hypothetical scenario where currently proposed U.S. policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been successfully implemented. A more dire scenario from the researchers, forecasts that cardiovascular deaths from extreme heat could increase by 233% in the next 13 to 47 years if there are only minimal efforts to reduce emissions.

Right now, Bridgeport’s Black population already has the city’s highest rates of diabetes and hypertension, both cardiac risk factors.

But these conditions didn’t develop overnight, Walsh said.

He cited the history of redlining in Connecticut, which concentrated poverty in the cities and reduced wealth in Black families in particular.

“That likely has much to do with reduced access to air conditioning and reduced access to health care,” he said. “And so a lot of the efforts to address these problems are going to be outside of the ER, it's going to be on improving overall equity.”

Some cities are already working to address the problem of extreme heat.

In Hartford, officials want 35% of the city to be covered by trees by 2070 to reduce the urban heat island effect. In accordance with the City’s Tree Canopy Action Plan, the city will prioritize the neighborhoods which currently have the least canopy coverage. This fall, the city received a $6 million federal sustainability grant under the Inflation Reduction Act.

A study in May in PLOS Climate using mortality and weather data across Connecticut’s warm season from 2005 to 2016, estimated that 31 deaths were attributable to extreme heat. Researchers said the results “support state-wide action to mitigate the negative health effects of extreme heat.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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