Adapting to the Health Impacts of Climate Change

By Jared Ulmer, Climate Change Adaptation Program Coordinator at the Vermont Department of Health.
Tropical Storm Irene provided an extremely potent example of how climate change will impact Vermont. Unfortunately, storm-related impacts are only one of many ways that climate change will affect the health of Vermonters.

The good news (yes, there can be good news on climate change!) is that Vermont is already taking steps to address a broad range of those climate-related health impacts. The great news is that these steps will improve health in Vermont across the board, regardless of how much climate change affects us.

With funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Vermont Department of Health is leading an effort to identify and mitigate expected climate change impacts on health. We considered an extensive list of potential health impacts, and narrowed our focus to six priority areas:

  1. Extreme storm events – Heavy precipitation events are expected to become more frequent in the future, increasing the likelihood of injuries, fatalities, and mental health concerns related to flooding, infrastructure damage, and economic hardship.
  2. Waterborne and foodborne diseases – With more frequent heavy rains, we also expect increased runoff of urban, industrial, and agricultural contaminants into drinking, recreational, and irrigation waters.
  3. Harmful algal blooms – Increased runoff and warming water temperatures are also expected to increase the occurrence of harmful algal blooms, which threaten both drinking and recreational waters.Vermont emergency department heat complaints
  4. Extreme heat events – A recent Health Department analysis found that on days when the average temperature around the state reached 87°F or warmer, the risk of emergency department visits for heat complaints was eight times higher, and there was also an increased risk of death for older adults. We expect the number of days this hot to increase from seven per year currently to as many as 30 per year by the end of the century.
  5. Mosquito and tick-borne diseases – Many mosquitoes and ticks thrive in warmer and wetter conditions, while earlier springs and later winters extend the period in which they come into contact with humans. In Vermont, the incidence of Lyme disease is more than five times greater than it was a decade ago, and mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis are increasingly detected. While these trends may not be entirely attributable to climate change, climate factors are one concern.
  6. Air quality – A longer growing season is expected to increase the amount of pollen in the air, while wetter conditions may increase the occurrence of mold problems inside buildings, both of which contribute to breathing problems.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 9.16.37 AMWhile everyone will be affected by climate change, certain populations will be more affected than others. Older adults, young children, those with pre-existing medical conditions, outdoor workers, and those with limited socioeconomic resources will disproportionately bear the brunt. Since these populations tend to be more susceptible to health impacts in general, preparing for climate change provides an opportunity to address underlying vulnerabilities and improve health equity overall.

Having identified these health priorities and vulnerable populations, the Health Department is now working on developing and implementing strategies to address the expected impacts. Blue-green algae blooms are now regularly monitored and tracked online, providing the public, drinking water operators, and recreational site managers with information on current risk levels.

The public can also report tick activity online, which provides valuable data to the Health Department and alerts others of potential risks. Other ongoing efforts include a partnership aimed at reducing agricultural runoff and an analysis to identify urban hot spots that could be cooled through tree planting or other green infrastructure strategies.

Over the course of the next year, we will be reaching out to stakeholders to identify additional strategies and compile an action plan. In the meantime, please visit the Health Department’s Climate Change website for further information, and if you have any thoughts to share with us on climate-related health impacts and potential adaptation strategies, please get in touch with us at ClimateHealth@vermont.gov.

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