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Op-Ed: Working Together to Address Health Challenges Posed by NJ Climate Changes

The impact that changing climate trends will have on health of New Jerseyans is immediate, widespread, and severe

George DiFerdinando Jr.
Dr. George DiFerdinando Jr.

The most recent research on changing climate trends in the United States concludes, “Climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow.”

Here in New Jersey, we see these changing climate trends as evidenced by increases in unusual summertime heat, with 15 of the warmest summers on record having occurred since 1999 and three of the four warmest summers occurring since 2010. Annual New Jersey precipitation has increased at a rate of 2.4 inches per century and there is evidence to expect the trend in heavier precipitation events will continue as the climate warms. Rising sea levels are greater than global levels in our region, with New Jersey experiencing an average rate of 1.5 inches per decade of sea-level rise since the early 1900s. Climate scientists have concluded that New Jersey is likely to experience rising sea levels of between one-half to one foot by 2030.

The impact that these changing climate trends will have on health of New Jerseyans is immediate, widespread, and severe. Studies from both the New Jersey Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already documented an increase of heat-related illness in New Jersey associated with the warm season and that these rates have been increasing in recent years. What can we expect in the future?

  • An expected increase in the intensity and frequency of heat waves leading to increased cases of heat-related health outcomes including heat exhaustion and heat stroke;

  • Higher temperatures that are expected to affect air quality such as increases in ground-level ozone (leading to increased respiratory conditions and premature death) and a lengthening of the pollen season (leading to increases in allergies and asthma);

  • More intense extreme-weather events that may lead to the types of chronic stress and trauma that our state experienced as a result of Hurricane Sandy;

  • Increased flooding from heavier rain events, which may lead to more flood-related injuries and fatalities, as well as increased exposures to mold, and food and water contamination due to increased storm runoff and extended periods of humidity. Additionally, coastal flooding will be exacerbated by an overall increase in sea level;

  • Increases in temperature are expected to change patterns of migration and reproduction of insect pests that transmit a wide range of diseases such as Lyme, West Nile virus, and dengue fever; and

  • Changing climate conditions that will continue to threaten the state’s energy, water, and transportation infrastructure that can result in power outages, salt water intrusion into drinking-water supplies, and structural damages that may lead to increased accidents.

Some New Jersey residents will be more affected by changing climate conditions, including senior citizens and young children who are more affected by conditions such as poor air quality; people with limited mobility as well as others with existing respiratory or cardiovascular medical conditions; poorer residents who have limited access to resources that reduce impacts and who may be exposed to other conditions that reduce their resilience; urban residents (who may be exposed to greater heat-island effect and contaminated runoff); residents of coastal and riverine communities; and outdoor laborers and workers in the agricultural, fishing, and tourism industries. In a diverse population like that of New Jersey, it is important to understand the way risk and vulnerability vary across groups in order to target prevention and intervention strategies appropriately.

A group of public health leaders and practitioners has convened to form a Climate Change and Public Health Working Group under the umbrella of the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance. The working group recently issued a draft “Climate and Health Profile Report” that outlines anticipated impacts that a changing climate may have on the health of New Jerseyans. The report also offers recommendations on strategies that can be undertaken in New Jersey to minimize those impacts. The insights within the report reflect the collective thinking of a diverse group of public health organizations in the state including the New Jersey Society for Public Health Education, New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials, New Jersey Association of Public Health Nurse Administrators, New Jersey Public Health Association, New Jersey Local Boards of Health Association, and New Jersey Environmental Health Association.

The report has been issued as a draft and the working group is asking for comments from public health practitioners, residents, local officials, community leaders, and others by March 17, 2017.

New Jersey’s “Climate and Health Profile Report” is an important step forward in the Garden State to realize the impacts that a changing climate will have on the health of our residents. It offers an important opportunity to begin a dialogue among the public health community and others on how to best address those impacts to achieve our shared goals protecting and enhancing the health and wellbeing of all New Jerseyans. We urge public health practitioners from throughout New Jersey to comment on the draft report.

George DiFerdinando Jr., MD, MPH, is a former deputy commissioner and acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, and is currently chair of the Princeton board of health and adjunct professor of epidemiology in the Rutgers School of Public Health.

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