When wildfire season hits the West and smoke fills the air, there’s a health risk for people with compromised respiratory systems, seniors, children and others. With Colorado’s climate warming along with the rest of the globe, that’s a connection that concerns health researchers at the independent, nonpartisan Colorado Health Institute.
Their new report notes that Colorado’s average temperature rose about 2 degrees in the past 30 years; that’s unusually quick if you look at the historical record. But scientists project average temperatures could rise another 5 degrees by 2050.
The report says the state has seen 78 large wildfires, defined as more than 1,000 acres, between 1970 and 2012. But nearly a quarter of them happened in just two years - the drought years from 2010 to 2012. Smoke from those fires degraded air quality.
“Just in the past 30 years the number of wildfires has really increased and not only in the number, but just in the severity,” said Chrissy Esposito, a data visualization and policy analyst with the Colorado Health Institute. “All those [factors] combine like a perfect storm for adverse health events.”
People with compromised cardiovascular, respiratory or nervous systems can expect to be most affected by the heat. The largest groups at risk? Kids and seniors. Kids have a greater skin surface to weight ratio — that means they absorb more heat than adults. And seniors also can’t regulate their body temperature as well. Those who are poor are even more vulnerable since some struggle to pay for air conditioning.
About 6 percent of the population has cardiovascular disease, and thus have a harder time pumping blood, which is a big part of how the body normalizes temperatures. Diabetics’ circulatory challenges can mean they struggle to cool their bodies on hot days. The warming climate “just adds another complex factor into dealing with issues like obesity and asthma that are already problems in the community,” Esposito said.
About 107,000 Colorado kids and 380,000 adults live with asthma. They can expect to struggle with declining air quality as the climate warms, bringing with it higher levels of ozone, and particles in the air, along with allergens.
The climate-health connection is gaining traction in the health world. The American Public Health Association declared this year the Year of Climate Change and Health. The non-profit’s executive director, Dr. Georges Benjamin, says the issue has been overlooked, but that it touches so many areas. “We think that it's by far kind of a sleeper public health issue that no one is thinking about and a major public health threat,” said Benjamin.
“The leading causes of death, heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, all of those things are impacted by climate change. Heat waves, injury, severe storms,” said Benjamin. “From our perspective, a lot of it is preventable.”
The report is the first of its kind for the Colorado Health Institute. But Esposito said she expects it won’t be the last.
“We felt there was a bit of a disconnect between understanding that climate change is occurring, and then that that can actually have harmful impacts on people's health. So we really wanted to help people be aware of what's going on in their state,” she said.
This issue is not without controversy; there was some indication of that earlier this year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been planning a Climate and Health Summit. In January, just before the presidential inauguration, it was canceled, without explanation. The American Public Health Association ended up hosting a trimmed-down version of the CDC event, but without government involvement.
“It has been a bipartisan issue,” in past years said Benjamin. “We hope soon we will return to bipartisanship on this very important public health issue.”
With or without federal involvement, the Colorado Health Institute’s report notes that the state is responding to the emerging health threat. Colorado adopted a Climate Change Plan. Communities are preparing for extreme weather and developing plans to respond. The state’s voters created renewable energy standards more than a decade ago, a first in the nation. When you look at Colorado’s electricity mix, renewables rose steadily from 2 percent that year, to roughly 22 percent now, according to the Colorado Energy Office.