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Is Climate Change Already Aggravating Asthma, Other Diseases in New Jersey?

Healthcare and environmental experts discuss serious public health consequences, local and global, of a changing climate

power plant smog
Credit: philly.com

Climate change may have catastrophic global consequences in the future, but it is already exacerbating public health concerns like asthma, allergic reactions, and infectious diseases here in New Jersey, a state that already suffers from poor air quality.

That was the message highlighted by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, (D-6th), after meeting on Tuesday with a diverse panel of healthcare and environmental advocates at the Chandler Health Center, a community clinic in New Brunswick.

With Earth Day this weekend — and continuing efforts to dismantle environmental protections in Washington, D.C. — Pallone said the roundtable conversation was designed to increase public awareness of the impact climate change has on public health and to connect experts from two fields that don’t often interact. The discussion underscored the need to do more to reduce greenhouse gases, he added, and allowed those involved to share strategies for reducing global warming’s effects on local communities.

“Many people think that the impact of climate change and global warming is long-term, that it’s something that’s going to affect their grandchildren,” Pallone said. And, while that’s true, he said, “this is [also] happening now and it has a direct impact on their health today.”

Denial and delay

“The scientific evidence is clear climate change endangers human health. This problem demands immediate action, not denial and delay,” Pallone added, noting that last month President Donald Trump signed an executive order to begin dismantling a plan to reduce emissions from coal-burning plants and other polluters.

The New Brunswick meeting reflected research by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, an alliance of healthcare providers that joined forces in March and issued a report that said global warming is already harming our health in communities nationwide. Heat-related illnesses are rising, chronic conditions are worsening, and mental health problems are becoming more common, the group found. Children, the elderly, poor residents, and those with longstanding health problems are particularly at risk.

Participants also reviewed a draft report from the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance, a group of environmental, infrastructure, and sustainability experts who came together in 2011 to help inform public policy in light of global warming. With heat waves becoming more extreme and lasting longer, more frequent storms and floods, public health in New Jersey is likely to suffer, the alliance has predicted.

“This touches on a lot of things — and it’s all interrelated,” said Betsy Ryan, president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association, who joined the discussion, along with representatives of the New Jersey Public Health Association, New Jersey Primary Care Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, NJ Chapter, as well as a handful of Garden State environmental organizations. “It’s also becoming more important with each passing day,” Ryan said.

Lower air quality is a particular concern, as it exacerbates asthma and allergy attacks and can cause lung damage and pulmonary problems for those with vulnerable respiratory systems, the consortium noted. Rising temperatures impact these conditions on their own, but they also result in a longer growing season and more pollen, which aggravates allergies and breathing issues, and can lead to dust storms or wildfires that add particulates to the air and only make matters worse. Poor air quality is already a problem in New Jersey, where many counties received a failing grade on a report issued last summer by the American Lung Association.

Asthma a priority for NJ

Addressing asthma is a priority for New Jersey, where nearly 590,000 adults and 180,000 children suffer from the chronic respiratory disease; the asthma rate here is about nine percent for adults and children, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Nationwide rates are lower, at 8.4 percent for children and 7.6 percent for adults, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Asthma is one of the conditions targeted in the DOH’s Healthy New Jersey 2020 public health plan, which outlines a strategy that brings together multiple state and local agencies, health advocates, and medical providers to reduce hospitalizations. The approach has shown promise: in one year, the hospitalization rate for young children declined from 444 to 328 per 100,000 residents.

Mary Coogan, vice president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, who attended the meeting with Pallone said data collected for their recent KidsCount report showed asthma hospitalizations had declined 25 percent statewide and even more in Essex County and specifically in Newark, where the group is based. But focus groups revealed that some parents may choose to keep their asthmatic children home from school during a heat wave or other bad weather, rather than risk an attack.

That, in turn, leads to less time in class and, possibly, missed work for the parent. “It just becomes a domino effect,” Coogan said. (The Medical Society Consortium found that nationwide, asthma costs the United States $56 billion each year in healthcare and lost opportunity.)

Like those nationwide, New Jersey’s asthma rates are higher among communities of color — reaching 14 percent for black adults, according to the DOH — and in urban areas, which retain heat and have higher levels of particulate matter in the air that can trigger attacks. Community health clinics are seeing the impact of these changes, public health advocates note, but not just in the cities. In fact, some rural counties in northwestern New Jersey have been particularly hard-hit by smog from Pennsylvania coal plants.

Heat-related illnesses

Warmer temperatures already send some 1,200 New Jersey residents annually to the emergency room for heat-related illnesses, according to the climate alliance. And with nine out of 10 residents living in urban areas, the state is particularly susceptible to the “heat island” effect — or the way over-paved and heavily developed regions trap rising temperatures.

“We always worry about the elderly shoveling snow, but you also have to worry about people with heat exhaustion too, with more high degree days,” said NJHA’s Ryan, who hoped to continue working with the other participants on these issues.

A warmer climate also expands the range of many vector-borne illnesses, infections transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects. Concerns about Zika dominated the news last summer and New Jersey saw dozens of cases; none were triggered by local mosquitoes, but scientists said the species that carries the virus could eventually take up residence in New Jersey. An ongoing concern is Lyme disease, transmitted by deer ticks that are common to this area, and West Nile virus, another mosquito-borne illness that killed nearly 300 people in 2012.

“The insects become more widespread, so the exposure to them is increased and so are the diseases they carry,” Pallone said.

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