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FSPH doctoral students have armed L.A. County Department of Public Health decision makers with vital information on the projected health effects of climate change – and helped develop strategies to address them.
AS TEMPERATURES RISE, precipitation levels fall, and extreme weather events become more frequent, how will the health of Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents be affected?
Climate change isn’t typically framed as a public health issue, but a group of Fielding School doctoral students who have devoted their studies to understanding the potential health effects of the changing weather patterns know that the perils are all too real. In Los Angeles, the projected effects range from increased air pollution and its impact on people with respiratory and other chronic ailments to the likelihood of severe water shortages and threats to drinking water quality; from the prospect of diminished agricultural production and food supply resulting from droughts and extreme weather events to the increased spread of diseases carried by mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks as they begin to thrive in new environments. The PhD students, under the mentorship of Dr. Hilary Godwin, a professor in the school’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, are not only studying how climate change will affect health, but are also partnering with local groups to develop strategies to decrease, and in some cases prevent, the harmful effects.
For the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH), the questions about health impacts of climate change and proactive measures that can address them are far from academic. Seeking to bolster its climate action plan, LACDPH has worked closely with Godwin and her PhD students to educate staff members about climate change’s health effects and engage them in developing creative but realistic solutions. The FSPH initiative leveraged work performed by a UCLA team headed by Dr. Alex Hall, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Hall’s group recently completed high-resolution modeling of temperatures and snowfall in Los Angeles County for the middle and end of the current century.
The 16-part Climate and Health Workshop Series that started last fall and ran through this spring was developed by Godwin and her students, who identified topics of importance, divided them among their areas of expertise, and presented to members of the LACDPH staff. (The work of Godwin and her students was augmented by presentations from additional UCLA experts.) Each workshop was followed by a brainstorming session in which the UCLA and LACDPH participants explored strategies for promoting resilience against the negative effects through current programs and new initiatives. Godwin, her students and the LACDPH staff are also developing a manuscript detailing the health impacts of climate change and how they can be addressed at the county level.
“These workshops took the complex topic of climate change and broke it up into specific issues relevant to public health staff,” says Charlene Contreras, who directs LACDPH’s climate change-related efforts as chief environmental health specialist for the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit. “This approach was very helpful in framing climate change as a public health issue and educating members of our workforce so they can integrate climate change considerations into their day-to-day jobs.”
“The workshop series has been a wonderful opportunity to open up dialogue and engage both LACDPH staff and UCLA students,” adds Godwin, who in May was named one of six recipients of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award. “One big difference between this initiative and other ones nationally is that we are very focused on identifying likely impacts for specific neighborhoods within Los Angeles and using these insights to develop concrete goals to make our communities healthier and more resilient. We had an incredibly diverse group of participants in the workshop series, and their ability to work together to come up with creative solutions to complex problems was truly inspirational.”
Higher temperatures are a recipe for more ozone production in Southern California, and may also increase concentrations of particulate matter - the mixture of solids and liquid droplets in the atmosphere that also affect air quality and human health. Tamanna Rahman, the Fielding School doctoral student who presented a workshop on the topic, notes that this raises the specter of additional cases of cardiovascular and respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as worsened status for people who already have these and other chronic illnesses. Many people will also be affected by a projected increase in wildfires. “With a hotter, dryer climate and less rainfall, our environment is more conducive to them,” Rahman says. “This will be a problem for populations in the foothills, and for people who live downwind.”
Blood-feeding insects such as mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, as well as rodents, can serve as vectors for transmitting human diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease, Hantavirus, and typhus. In his presentation on the effects of climate change on vector-borne diseases, Fielding School doctoral student Bryan Moy explained that the changing climate in Los Angeles County could potentially increase the range of these species, placing new populations at risk. The changing climate is also projected to increase transmission by certain mosquito species, which may bite more frequently and reproduce more rapidly in warmer temperatures, notes Moy. He has begun collaborating with LACDPH’s vector-management and veterinary public health services to form a working group to identify strategies for combatting these effects.
Los Angeles County relies on other parts of California for much of its food, but drought, higher temperatures, extreme weather events, and other climate change impacts are projected to compromise agricultural production and raise food prices, Fielding School doctoral student Tyler Watson noted in his presentation. “An increased emphasis on local food production such as community gardens and urban farming will help communities become less vulnerable to price increases and natural disasters,” Watson says. He points out that the strategy carries other health benefits, including more access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income communities that have historically lacked such options. In addition, urban agriculture helps decrease greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable farming methods and decreased food transportation miles.
Climate change is expected to weigh most heavily on groups that already tend to be at higher risk for health problems. Joseph Hoover of the University of Denver, in a collaboration with Fielding School doctoral student Tamanna Rahman, presented a spatial mapping analysis showing the overlap between parts of the county projected to be most affected by extreme heat and low-income populations that tend to lack access to air conditioning, or are financially constrained from using it. The analysis pointed to where there is the most need for cooling centers (public air-conditioned buildings) and additional resources. Rahman also stressed the importance of resilience-building efforts that focus on the elderly, children, people with limited mobility, and those with chronic illnesses. Such efforts can bring health co-benefits. Planting more trees, for example, not only provides a respite from the heat, but also can improve air quality through reduced carbon dioxide, along with bringing mental health benefits from a greener environment.
Fielding School doctoral student Sabrina Adelaine presented on the need for the health system to prepare for potential surges in patient visits to clinics and hospitals, particularly in low-income areas, as vulnerable groups are affected by extreme heat, poor air quality and other climate change effects. “Just as we now plan for seasonal flu and take proactive measures like getting people vaccinated, we need to begin thinking about seasonal climate change effects and make sure facilities have the supplies and support operations to absorb the influx of patients,” says Adelaine, who has begun working with county officials to address the issue.
The workshop series brought in staff from LACDPH with wide-ranging areas of focus, many of whom hadn’t previously considered some of the potential climate change-related health effects raised by the Fielding School students. “Addressing these issues requires an interdisciplinary effort,” says Bryan Moy, one of the FSPH doctoral student presenters. “With this series we brought in representatives from different programs, with the hope that they will take these presentations and discussions back to their groups. That way, everyone will have a better understanding of these issues and the department can address them in a cohesive way.”Beyond the benefits to LACDPH staff, the workshops have provided the Fielding School students with invaluable experience and exposure. “Dr. Godwin always emphasizes the importance of presenting our work to new and diverse audiences whenever possible, including people outside of our area of expertise,” says Moy. “When we do that, it requires us to think critically about how to present our work in a tangible, easy-to-comprehend way.” Making connections with people outside of the students’ field of expertise can also bring new perspectives that enhance the work, Moy notes. In his case, the workshop series has opened up collaborative opportunities with LACDPH professionals involved in GIS spatial modeling and veterinary public health. Although the students were the presenters, FSPH doctoral student Sharona Sokolow says the education went both ways. “It’s one thing for us to be doing the research, but we’re not the ones actually applying it within the county,” Sokolow says. “I’ve learned a great deal about the implications of my studies from these discussions.” “Climate change is such an expansive area of study that it can be hard to grasp,” adds Tamanna Rahman, another FSPH doctoral student presenter. “We're trying to bring it down to the local level. Yes, it’s a global issue, but it’s going to have impacts that will affect the health of local populations. Working with the county in such a close partnership and knowing that our work is informing actions that will ultimately result in benefits to the community is both challenging and energizing.”