By Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute
The following op-ed was written by Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute specializing in environmental health science and cardiovascular health research.
To prevent catastrophic devastation to our earth, we must act now.
According to the 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have less than seven years to make the necessary changes to cool our planet.
Those changes will affect more than hotter temperatures and rising sea levels. It will affect our hearts too.
In fact, heat is the top cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. Moreover, extreme heat is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease — the top cause of death worldwide.
What makes this more urgent is that our exposure to extreme heat is becoming far more frequent and intense due to climate change. This excess trapped heat not only exposes us to warmer temperatures, but it creates conditions conducive to extreme weather events — Hurricane Ida, the Caldor Fire, the Pacific Northwest heat wave and East Coast heat warnings are but the latest examples.
Extreme heat is particularly concerning for populations that work and play outside. With football practices and band camps gearing up, youth and children are at higher risk for heat-related illnesses. Older Americans with pre-existing conditions are also at greater risk and vulnerable to heat conditions.
Race and socioeconomic status come into play as well. Oftentimes, under resourced communities, like communities of color or areas experiencing poverty, do not have adequate access to air conditioning, which is the number one way to prevent heat-related illness, according to the CDC.
We, of course, cannot ignore the current situation we are all living in — the pandemic. Climate change worsens Covid-19 symptoms, exacerbating our lung conditions and overworking our hearts. The virus complicates our response to climate change, making communal cooling centers and physical distancing more of a challenge.
Although complex, it’s not impossible. There is still much we can do to slow climate change and the impact it has on our communities and our health. Time is ticking and identifying populations most in need can help inform interventions to promote positive change. Whether you are a policymaker, corporation or community member, you can make a difference. Here are some interventions that will help:
Access to air conditioning and cooling centers
For many of us, the thought of not having air conditioning, especially in the South, seems unimaginable. But there is an equitable need to have air conditioning in every home in America. Being able to cool off on a hot day underscores the importance of every public health intervention and should not be taken for granted. Communal cooling centers are another option for those without A/C available and should be thoughtfully placed with masking guidelines so that everyone can access them in a safe and reasonable manner.
Increased tree canopy
Rooted in nature, planting trees is a feasible and realistic option for everyone. The University of Louisville’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute has found through its Green Heart Project that access to green spaces and tree cover are associated with better health outcomes. Trees cool and clean the air, decrease certain health risks like cancer and encourage physical activity — not to mention increasing overall mental health, too. Research to identify the right tree type for a specific community must be studied across the nation, creating a chain reaction in cardiovascular benefits.
Create a partner program
In extreme heat, it is imperative that we look out for our older neighbors. In 2017, New York City launched its “Be a Buddy NYC” program to protect at-risk New Yorkers from the health impacts of extreme heat in South Bronx, Central Brooklyn and Northern Manhattan. Younger volunteers were paired with older adults to check on their status. A partner program is easy to implement and can improve the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in times of climate crisis.
Join a collective voice
You don’t have to be a climate scientist to create change. Everyone has their own story and experiences to share and sometimes it’s easier to find your voice amongst a group of like-minded individuals. Being a part of a group, connected by the same mission and vision, amplifies the power of the collective to help move the needle.
Equip and educate
With smart phones and social media, we have more power at our disposal than ever before. People can be notified of a heat alert in seconds and act. Using these platforms and technologies to speak to people in a way that motivates and inspires action must come from our own experiences and values. But we must act now and do our part before it’s too late. The environment and our hearts will thank us later.
Download extreme heat safety social media graphics here
For more information about research being conducted at the Envirome Institute, please visit enviromeinstitute.com.