Wildfires, extreme heat waves, air pollution, snowstorms, and drought are just some of the extreme weather events Oregon has gone through the last couple of years. A new report from the three Portland metro area counties shines a light at how climate change is impacting the health of the state’s most populous region.
The Regional Climate and Health Monitoring Report provides data for 12 health conditions like asthma and heat stress, which span areas that climate change is known to affect. The report was completed by health officials from Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties where nearly 2 million people live.
The report found that visits to hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers jumped 29% for asthma-like symptoms for four weeks during the 2020 Labor Day fires.
“In Clackamas County specifically, we saw zip codes that were closer to the fires, so in areas like along 211 or in Molalla and Estacada they experienced higher rates in visits than areas that were farther away,” said Abe Moland, the health and transportation impact planner with the Clackamas County Public Health Division.
The 2020 wildfires produced record breaking numbers for wildfire smoke on the Air Quality Index across the state. One of those fires, the Riverside Fire, burned nearly 138,000 acres and prompted evacuation alerts for many residents in Clackamas County.
Moland said health departments urgently need to build better systems to handle and adapt to emergencies like wildfires and extreme heat as climate change worsens.
“I think when we look back on this, we’ll see that we’re experiencing more significant weather patterns that have impacts on health that we are not prepared to face in the magnitude that we’re experiencing,” he said.
Last year also saw a decrease in several climate change-related illnesses, according to the study. Multnomah County’s Healthy Homes and Communities Supervisor Brendon Haggerty attributed that to the way COVID-19 pandemic altered people’s behavior.
“People weren’t traveling as much but also some of the big events where we might see health impacts — stuff like county fairs or festivals, organized athletic events — those weren’t happening, either,” he said. “So, 2020 is definitely an outlier.”
Once the report is updated with 2021 data, Haggerty said, two events that will really stand out: February’s snowstorm, when many people lost power for several days, and June’s extreme heatwave, when at least 81 people died of heat-related illnesses in the tri-county area.
“In a normal summer, for the whole summer in Multnomah County, we might see about 100 people visiting emergency departments for heat illness or something like heat stroke,” he said. “In five days of the heat dome event we saw over 150 visits just in those few days.”
Health officials from each county are working on gathering more data to document the effects climate change is having on mental health, by contributing to people’s feelings of anxiety, sadness, and anger.
“We really looked high and low for the best way to measure the mental health impacts of climate change and we came to the conclusion that we really don’t have a system in place to do that.”
The report also documents how low-income people and communities of color are disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change; it’s hitting them sooner and more severely than others. Haggerty said that could be due to existing inequities shaped by racism where people have fewer resources to cope or already have pre-existing health conditions that worsen during extreme weather events.
The Oregon Environmental Council’s executive director, Diana Nuñez, said the report’s findings reinforce the need for local and state leaders for strong rules to reduce and move away from our dependence on fossil fuels in the future.
“The new Regional Climate Monitoring and Health report re-confirms what we’ve all been experiencing,” Nuñez said. “The health effects of climate change, physical and mental, are now a part of our daily experience, and they are not experienced equitably. That’s why it’s important that we maximize the very real steps that Oregon can take right now to reduce the threat of climate change and protect people’s health in the future.”