Transcript of Episode 9: Climate Changes Health

with host David Richards [DR] and guest Dr. Natasha DeJarnett [ND] 
Listen to the audio

[DR] This week on the Healthy Communities podcast we’re going to talk about climate change and environmental health with Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, policy analyst at APHA. We’ll see how changes big and small in our natural environment can have dramatic impacts to our health. 

[DR] Welcome to the Healthy Communities podcast; a public health-themed podcast that breaks down common health issues in our communities, and how Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge projects aim to address them. I am your host, David Richards from APHA. This is Episode 9: Climate Changes Health. 


[DR] Thank you so much for being with me and for being a guest on the Healthy Communities podcast. 

[ND] Thank you. I’m honored to be here.

[DR] Do you want to introduce yourself? Tell me who you are. You work for APHA. What do you do here?

[ND] OK great. I am Dr. Natasha DeJarnett. I lead our natural environment portfolio at APHA around air, water and climate change. For the last two years a bulk of my work has been around climate change and health. 

[DR] What is your background? What did you study? 

[ND] I pursued a master’s in public health and found public health, my love. Then, I went ahead to pursue a PhD in environmental health sciences.

[DR] Why did you want to make that change from the research, academia side to the communication, policy side?

[ND] Good question. I ultimately in life want to improve the health of our people. To do that, I’m very interested in influencing policy. Having done research, having a reasonable understanding of the science that would then inform policy, I think that makes me a stronger person to inform policy, then, I may have been otherwise. It seemed like a great next step and transition on my path towards strongly influencing environmental health policy to protect the health of us all.

[DR] You sort have mentioned that, but what is your favorite part of it? 

[ND] I have found so much excitement and despair in my work in climate change and health. I hate to say that I’m so excited to communicate the health risks of climate change because that sounds terrible because it’s sad and devastating. We’re seeing the effects of it right now with Hurricane Florence. We’re seeing the effects of it right now with the wildfires throughout California and the west. But I really do appreciate, which is probably the better word. I appreciate being able to help people make these connections and help building capacity for communities to be more prepared. 

[DR] When we think about climate change, people discount the future and they don’t see how it affects them today but in your expertise, why should people care about that right now? 

[ND] Great question. They should care right now, because it’s happening right now. I just gave two examples of what we’re seeing in the news on climate change and health, but there’s so much more to that. It affects air quality like I said before. This is having impacts on folks with asthma, people with heart disease, and even allergies. Climate change is increasing the pollen in the air because we have longer hot and warm seasons, so we have a longer pollen season. People are having much more intense allergy seasons, also with asthma. It’s happening now; it affects our health in so many ways. We have extreme heat. That’s the hallmark of climate change. Heat related illness and heat strokes are deadly. Heat even affects allergies and asthma as well. Folks with those diseases can have complications with asthma and heart disease. We’re actually able to observe the health effects and it’s happening now, I can’t say that enough. I’ve spoken on the extreme weather events and extreme precipitation with flooding on one hand and then on the other hand is extreme drought. Both of these contribute to health. With flooding, we have water contamination. Flooding can cause a combined sewer overflow where untreated sewer water goes into our water supply. 

[DR] If you want we can talk about the environmental health stuff and to talk back a little bit about what makes a healthy community. Things like that. 

[ND] I messed up on something. I had a thought when you were asking about why you do this and I said the people. My new passion for climate change, which I forgot, I’m also here for justice. I remember being a kid visiting my grandparents and they lived where what I would consider an environmental justice area. They live in an area that is surrounded by steel industry. In its heyday, it was quite polluted. Twenty to thirty years after its heyday comes me. I remember coming as a child coming to visit them and saying, “The air here looks different. It feels different. My asthma is worse when I’m here.” That really stuck with me. When I was in grad school, I did a research project on their actual neighborhood and looked at justice and health and environmental impacts associated with their neighborhood, and did find some links. It’s not where I grew up but it’s extra special to me. I love the people there. Having a voice for the voiceless, defending those who aren’t aware of what’s going on, I’m armed with the information and I feel that it’s my responsibility to do something. 

[DR] That is a really good point. You talked about that environment in which your grandparents lived. What contributes to a healthy environment? You talked about the water, the air. Do you want to explain about that? Also, why was your asthma worse there? 

[ND] Good question. To me, environmental health is how the environment around us impacts our health. This is the air that we breathe, this is the water that we drink, and this is the food that we eat. We all deserve access to clean air, access to clean water.

[DR] In my studies at least, we said it was the green verse the brown. The green were these open spaces, natural areas, while the brown was the pollution, the air quality and the energy use. Do you want to talk about how those two, you sort of went into this, and how those two play together? You talked about steel. What are some examples of things that impact waterways or the air quality?

[ND] Some of the big pollutants that we’re exposed to in terms of industrial activity as well as automobile vehicle, truck diesel, etc. are greenhouse gasses. Carbon dioxide is a big greenhouse gas that is very much connected with our changing climate. Another pollutant that is often discussed when it comes to industrial exposures and vehicle exposures are particulate matter. A lot of my research during my PhD and my postdoc were around particulate exposure that comes from the tailpipe of vehicles or from road dust. 

[DR] What is it? In theory it’s very small matter. What is it and how does it get into our lungs? 

[ND] It’s strange to explain but its airborne particles, but they’re toxic. It’s airborne; therefore we can breathe it in. When we breathe it in, there are a couple different organs that it is able to reach. It can get in our nose, so we can sneeze it out. It’s not as hazardous when it gets into our nose. But we can also breathe it in and have it go all the way to our lungs. It can go all the way to the air sects and our alveoli, where it causes problems. It can also reach our brain. We don’t want anything to reach our brain. That can cause big problems. With PM 2.5, we are able to breathe those in to have it reach our lungs. There is also ultrafine particulate. They’re extremely small and those are the ones that we believe can reach the brain.  

[DR] Those sound more dangerous. 

[ND] Those are more dangerous. Let’s say you live near a roadway. Far away you might have exposure to the larger sized particulates. If you live a little bit closer, you get those PM 2.5 exposures. Closest to the roadway is where we have our largest risk of exposure to the ultrafine particulates. 

[DR] We talked a lot about how that affects the individual, but how does that affect the community? Paint me a picture of what that community looks like where there are different bad environmental exposures. 

[ND] As a researcher, you would want to look at some of the chronic illnesses. You want to look at obesity levels in the community. You want to look at heart disease risk in the community and heart disease mortality in the community. You want to look at asthma levels. A lot of researchers examine air pollution hand and hand with asthma exposures. Those are the things that you would look for and expect to see, but our communities are so multifaceted. Unfortunately, it’s going to be that it’s not just that pollution is there. In those areas that are more polluted, they also are more likely to have broken sidewalks, so people aren’t able to get out and walk and engage in physical activity. They may not be as safe. People still might not be able to get out and walk or bike or roll safely to their destination. They also might be near bus depots having added pollution risks. Painting a picture of an unhealthy community maybe I should contrast this with what a healthy community would look like. Further from hazardous environmental exposure, with green space, as you said before. Clear and safe sidewalks, so people can access walking, biking and rolling safely to their destinations. And I say that over automobile reliance, which is putting more pollution in our community. Certainly there are times when we need it. Most of people’s vehicular travel is for distances less than one mile. If we can make things safer, where they could walk, good for the environment and great for our health. 

[DR] Well, you just got back from California. You were at the global climate action summit in San Francisco. Tell me about it. What was it? 

[ND] First, I was honored to be there. The global climate and health forum was part of the global climate action summit and that summit was hosted by Governor Jerry Brown. I think at the time of the announcement, the US was going to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. There was much action among states about what we can do. I believe this was Governor Brown’s response to that, bring together leaders globally to advance action. Of course we in public health and other related fields like medicine, nursing, we are very charged on highlighting the health links between climate change and how that then affects our health. It was about 250 health leaders, national and international, government, non-government leaders that came together. I had the honor to be invited to attend and APHA’s executive director, Dr. Georges Benjamin; he was also a speaker during the forum. Other notables included Christiana Figueres as well as US representative Nancy Pelosi. The event was thrilling, it was exciting. See, once again, I talk about climate as being exciting, but it was also unfortunate. While we were there, people were concerned over am I going to be able to fly back east and things like that because Hurricane Florence was happening on the other coast. On one hand you have all these leaders coming together to talk about action to protect health and at the exact same time you have people on the east coast bracing for the impacts of a climate related storm. 

[DR] And you have wildfires.

[ND] And we’re in the same state where wildfires have been ravaging specially in the last 10 years. That irony was lost on no one and certainly was part of the conversation part of the meeting. Another big conversation around the meeting was air pollution. A lot of people brought air pollution into their talking points and into their discussion. What’s really interesting about APHA, we been in this space for a very long time. We have our first papers on climatology at APHA are dated back like 1921-1923. What’s shocking is that in these papers, they were saying what the health impacts would be. Just about 100 years later we’re experiencing it today. The data is there and has been there. Public outrage is what’s needed. We have to communicate this better. A lot of the speakers talked about how we can communication this. The health argument on climate seems to get us a lot further than polar bear arguments for example. 

[DR] So what came out of it? What were some of the outcomes? 

[ND] The big key outcome was a call to action. A call to action for climate and health and a call to action for health action on climate. That has ten key priorities. These priorities are around aspects of protecting health that also protect justice and build more resilient communities and nations because it’s a global call to action. APHA is one of the initial endorsers of this call. We’re going to have it on our website for people to see and other organizations can still sign on. It also calls for organizations themselves to take action, so that’s the health action for climate side. For health organizations themselves to cut back on their greenhouse gas emissions and to increase their sustainability.     

[DR] We did talk about this, it was concurrent with Hurricane Florence which is hit landfall in the Carolinas. You talked about resilience and mitigation. What does that look like? What would you say to those communities facing a hurricane? 

[ND] One important thing in solutions in climate is making sure that communities are at the table for the decision-making, especially our vulnerable populations that I listed before, making sure they’re at the table. They understand their community much more uniquely than I do siting on the outside. Making sure they’re at the table and they’re there in terms of preparedness, I heard one person say earlier this year, “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.” It’s really important that communities advocate. Some communities are great at this. They’re good at saying that this isn’t going to happen in my neighborhood; you’re not building this power plant here; you’re not going to put that landfill here. Things like that when it comes to environmental hazards. There are other communities that have less social capital, a little less connectedness and their voice gets lost. We need to make sure that they’re at the table saying what the problem is because they are experts of their community. The communities affected by Hurricane Florence and the aftermath, the most important thing, I can’t say the most important thing. One of the really important things that needed to be communicated ahead of the storm was to evacuate, evacuate safely ahead of the storm. You have better health impacts a head of that, especially on the mental health side of it. These storms are extremely stressful; they produce a lot of anxiety and post-traumatic stress for children in the population in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence on the mental health side. Someone told me a story of children survivors of Hurricane Katrina and every time the next storm is discussed on the news, even a smaller storm than a category five hurricane, they relive that experience. It’s traumatic for children as well as adults. We can advocate upholding the clean air act. We can advocate against the rollback of things like the clean power plan. We can advocate for stronger climate protections that are informed by our health and that protect our health, which keep health in climate policy. Those are things that we can do, things that communities can come together and lend their voice to. The most important thing that people can do going forward that I see in the next two months is to vote. We need to vote for leaders who are strong on climate change action. It’s hard to say in the aftermath of this storm this is what to do because the things that I’m talking about are speaking to policies that affect air and water, but affecting that change now will prevent something later. Prevention is not sexy because you do not see the impact of what you have prevented but you have prevented something and that is what we need.

[DR] Apart from the flooding side of things, what communities are good examples of climate adaptation or mitigation? California is really leading this. What do you see on local levels and what would you say to communities saying that it’s just a national and global issue; I can’t do much in my personal life. What do you say to that? 

[ND] One thing that we hear in the news and one thing that people don’t take as a climate related thing are air quality alerts. When we hear a code orange or code red, that is how we are communicating to vulnerable populations that this is not a good day for you to exercise outside or do strenuous activity outside in an extended amount of time. Things like turn around don’t drown, we also hear that one on the news when you have flooding and people are driving and can’t see the road anymore, it’s not safe to drive any further. Making sure people know the risks of bad air and flooding, and then, in public health, we need to work across sectors. We need to work with planners, with architects, we need to work with food systems and help plan our community and neighborhoods to be more resilient. 

[DR] Well, thank you so much for being with me. This was Dr. Natasha DeJarnett here at APHA, so thank you. This was fantastic. 

[ND] Thank you so much. I’m honored to be here. I appreciate any opportunities especially this opportunity to share environmental health and climate change.     

[DR] That’s the show this week! Thank you to my guest Dr. Natasha DeJarnett, and thank you all for listening. Links to more resources can be found on the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge website at healthiestcities.org under about the challenge, podcast. I’ll see you next time.