You can access the recording here.
As California experiences a record-setting heat wave, Bay Area Global Health Alliance members Americares, Stanford University, Public Health Institute, UCSF, and Google had a virtual conversation exploring the impact of wildfires, heat, and air pollution on the health of communities in the United States. The Sep 8, 2022 discussion co-hosted by the Alliance and Americares highlighted the most important concerns in this space and each panelist shared how their organization is working to build climate resilience and support preparedness/disaster management efforts.
Panelists highlighted socioeconomic disparities, climate change’s impact on school children, and the lack of investment in climate resilience as key challenges. On the solutions side, the panel championed the power of intersectoral partnerships and shared examples of how working with communities can improve climate resilience and protect public health.
“Climate change is increasingly disruptive to children’s environment in terms of learning. Education is supposed to be a right in California’s constitution. Between the pandemic and now more and more because of climate change, we are seeing that right threatened and disrupted,” said Lisa Patel, Stanford University pediatrician and clinical assistant professor.
Patel said it was important to center schools in climate resilience plans to protect children’s health and education. Patel, who also serves as deputy executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, explained that on top of the pandemic, wildfires have resulted in children missing many days of school, mental health problems like trauma, and a disproportionate negative impact on communities of color. “We understand now what the burden of toxic stress means for our kids. Experiencing these kinds of disruptions, this kind of trauma from an early age, sets them up for a lifetime of poorer health.”
Patel emphasized that sites for extraction and combustion are often in communities of color and children in these environments are exposed to pollutants from an early age. This exposure combined with wildfire smoke puts these children at a higher risk for developing severe asthma that would disrupt their learning. Patel is working with a coalition of partners to establish a climate resilience plan for public schools in California and hopefully push decision makers to invest in sustainable interventions to keep schools safe.
Kristin Stevens, Americares director of Climate and Disaster Resilience, also spoke on the impact and inequities of climate change on disadvantaged communities. “People who are the most vulnerable to disasters often get their care at community health centers, which are not given the attention nor the funding needed. We know that people who are vulnerable before a disaster are even more vulnerable during and after a disaster,” said Stevens, who likened climate change to a never ending disaster. Stevens also shared about Americares’ collaboration with Harvard Chan C-CHANGE to support the clinical and operational functioning of community health centers, a project that is the first of its kind. This partnership takes a multi-pronged approach that involves providing accurate, relevant information to health providers and patients, and supporting preparedness at these centers through checklists, messaging, and other tools.
Farm workers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of wildfires as they are exposed to smoke in the fields and in their homes, said Gina Solomon, UCSF clinical professor and Public Health Institute Principal Investigator.
“A lot of people who are also outdoor workers, usually farm workers, don’t have air conditioning systems in their homes. They have swamp coolers or evaporative coolers. These devices are not only less effective at cooling, they also pull in large quantities of unfiltered, outdoor air into the homes,” said Solomon. She also drew attention to the varied health effects of wildfires and the need to address structural barriers to building climate resilience.
Paul English, director of Tracking California at Public Health Institute, presented on the public health risks of particulate matter and how a project in Imperial County, California improved community and climate resilience. English worked with the people of Imperial County, a mostly low-income, latino community that is disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards, to install 40+ monitors that measure particulate matter and provide real-time reporting. “We actually used the resources of the community. There was training. They supported the installation of the monitors…This really increases community capacity that promotes sustainability of the project and increased awareness of the issues,” said English. When discussing the evaluation of the project, English named diverse gains in knowledge and increased ability to use air quality data as two key pieces of evidence for improvements in community resilience.
Air quality information on Google Search and the new air quality layer on Maps are visual tools that can help people make informed decisions, said Kevin Holst, social impact partnerships, Crisis Response, Google. He explained Google’s role in the climate health ecosystem and provided an overview of Google products which offer authoritative information before, during, and after a crisis.
Holst also stressed the importance of partnerships in Google’s climate health work. “Partnerships are very important for us as we consider ourselves the disseminator of authoritative information. For us, these partnerships are crucial to products, but also the equitability and accessibility of authoritative information,” said Holst.
The panelists’ presentations were followed by an engaging discussion further exploring key issues around addressing the health effects of wildfires and air pollution, and strategies for building climate resilience. This discussion was moderated by Alexandra Destler, regional director, Northern CA, Americares, and Sara Anderson, executive director, Bay Area Global Alliance.
Lisa Patel, MD, MESc – clinical assistant professor, Pediatrics, Deputy Executive Director, Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, Stanford University
Alexandra Destler – regional director, Northern CA, Americares
Sara Anderson – executive director, Bay Area Global Health Alliance