Editor’s Note: OPB recently hosted a cohort of early career journalists as a part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio. They spent time talking to people in the region about how climate change directly affects them and their communities. This story is a part of that series.
Two years ago during record wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, a longtime patient of Dr. Genoveva O’Neill hesitated going to her doctor’s appointment as wildfire smoke filled the air. An elderly Black woman with limited access to transportation, she already had complications with breathing due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. She was afraid of going outside, so she canceled her appointment. But that delay in care made her condition worsen, and she ended up in the hospital.
COPD is just one of the many underlying conditions that can be exacerbated by wildfire smoke caused by climate change. O’Neill wants to make that connection for her patients in Vancouver: She’s seeing higher incidences of pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disorders, heart attacks and strokes. And it’s not just physical ailments: Mental health illnesses like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders can arise. Washington and Oregon are already among the top states with highest prevalence of mental health illness.
O’Neill is already seeing the adverse effects of climate change among her patients, including patients in the Latinx community. Some are especially vulnerable to the health consequences of scorchingly hotter days and hazardous wildfire smoke, from working long days outside.
“Because [Latinx community members] are more likely to work in industries that require outdoor work — agriculture, manufacturing, construction — we see a lot more of the health effects of changing climate: hotter heat waves, longer droughts, wildfires,” O’Neill said.
According to a 2021 NPR/Columbia investigation, workers of color are dying at a higher rate than white workers. Since 2010, a third of heat-related fatalities have occurred among Latinx farmworkers, even though they make up only 17% of the U.S. workforce.
O’Neill says she’s also seeing more climate-related breathing problems among infants.
“[We’re] seeing a lot more kids developing things like asthma and breathing problems at a very early age — we’re talking three to six months, having them need to be on long-term medications at rates that we previously hadn’t seen,” O’Neill said. Older children are being affected too — one 12-year-old patient now needs an EpiPen after experiencing a new life-threatening allergic reaction.
It can get more complicated when parents don’t speak English. As newer symptoms arise due to wildfire smoke, O’Neill spends extra time to make sure that caregivers and parents feel comfortable administering life-saving medication, like an Epipen, to their kids.
O’Neill deeply believes in the power of using the data and research already available to acknowledge the health impacts of climate change. She’s worried not just for her patients, but her own family too.
“I worry about my children, not only immediate effects to their breathing, but what kind of world are we handing over to them?” O’Neill said. “If we can make a change now, it’s still going to, down the road, make a difference for the world we’re going to leave for our kids.”