Vermont health officials are spending $1 million to study how a silent killer will impact its citizenry in the coming decades. Cancer, heart disease or heroin addiction? Nope. Try climate change.
The Vermont Department of Health recently won a four-year grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify the most pressing health threats posed by climate change and to develop strategies for lessening their impacts. As one of 16 states and cities to receive the funding, Vermont will get $250,000 a year through 2016 to hire a Climate Change Program director and coordinate efforts across state agencies to get ready for the pests, disease and heat that global warming could unleash.
“People have this idea that climate change only affects polar bears and penguins, and that’s not the case,” says David Grass, a state epidemiologist who will oversee the climate-health program. “Whether people believe that climate change is due to human-related causes or not, I think everyone can get behind the idea of trying to build resilience to climate effects.”
How will warmer temps transform Vermont? A report compiled for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s climate-change team paints a grim picture. The report’s author, NASA-funded atmospheric researcher Alan Betts of Pittsford, notes that since 1970 the average temperature in New England has risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit; average winter temps have shot up 4 degrees. Betts says to expect rainier winters, hotter summers and more extreme weather events such as Tropical Storm Irene.
By 2050, Betts predicts, Vermont will be 3 degrees warmer — and 5 degrees hotter by century’s end.
Building on Betts’ research, state epidemiologist Lee Karlsson authored a report in 2011 exploring the most likely health consequences in Vermont from global warming — and the populations most likely to feel them. Vector-borne diseases such as Lyme, West Nile virus and dengue fever could infect more people, as milder winters and a warmer, wetter climate allow ticks and mosquitoes to proliferate. The reported number of Lyme infections has increased dramatically in recent years — from 40 cases in 2000 to 500 in 2011 — while human infections for West Nile virus have hung steady at between zero and three a year.
Karlsson also predicts possible crop and seafood contamination, as well as more respiratory disease from the spread of allergy-inducing pollens.
Vermonters most at risk are children, the elderly and people afflicted with illnesses, Karlsson wrote. Also on the front line would be those who work outdoors or do strenuous physical labor, such as workers in agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and construction.
The aim of the new program is to test Karlsson’s hypotheses by gathering hard data. Grass says it will identify the five most pressing climate-health problems and coordinate with government agencies and nonprofits to develop strategies and programs to confront them. The program will culminate in a strategic plan in 2015 or 2016.
Much of that could involve marshaling existing resources, Grass says. “During a heat wave, you don’t need a new program to contact people if you already have organizations that are checking in and making sure people are drinking adequate water,” he says.
But you might need a new program to turn public schools into cooling stations during heat waves, Grass suggests. Another possible outcome of the million-dollar project is increased blood testing for vector-borne diseases such as Lyme in dogs and other animals, which could forecast where humans might be at greatest risk.
Grass came to Vermont last fall after a stint at New York City’s health department, which landed CDC funding in 2010 to develop a climate-health plan for the Big Apple. He believes that climate change is “happening now” and Vermont is already feeling its effects. Tropical Storm Irene is one such sign, Grass says, though he admits that linking specific weather events — much less specific health problems — to climate change is tricky business.
“We do have people in this state who die and get sick due to exposure to extreme heat. Did that happen 50 years ago? Yes, absolutely,” Grass says. “But indisputably our climate is warmer than it used to be.” So attributing some heat-related illness and death to global warming is reasonable, he says.
Heat waves are expected to spawn a whole host of health problems as the Earth grows hotter. With that in mind, the health department recently launched an online portal that, among other things, tracks heat-related illness. Heat-related deaths are a rarity in Vermont — fewer than six since 2000 — and it’s hard to glean any trends from the stats on emergency-room visits for heat stress: 106 ER visits in 2005, 61 in 2007 and 58 in 2009, the last year for which figures are available.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Heat-related illnesses aren’t “reportable” diseases under the law, meaning doctors aren’t required to alert public-health officials if they treat a patient in their office for, say, heat exhaustion, a condition characterized by muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches, nausea or vomiting, and dizziness. Only if someone were hospitalized would it show up in public-health stats.
One recommendation in Karlsson’s climate-health report is to update reportable disease legislation to include more environment-related, noncommunicable diseases. That would give public-health officials a better handle on the true extent of the problem.
Vermont’s largest hospital, Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, has developed an emergency plan to deal with extreme weather events — but not specifically heat waves. Fletcher Allen spokesman Mike Noble says the hospital isn’t worried about a sudden influx of patients with heat-related illnesses.
“Frankly, there’s not been a lot of heat. We had hotter summers before 1999, 1998,” Noble says. “I personally think there is global warming going on, but I don’t think it’s as dramatic as, ‘Oh, my gosh, next year we’re going to have 50 more people in the ER because of heat.’”
The bigger worry is snow, explains Jack Conry, Fletcher Allen’s director of security and safety. When the Valentine’s Day blizzard of 2007 closed entire city streets, Conry says, “We couldn’t get supplies, patients couldn’t get to the hospital.”
No one really knows what kinds of weather the changing climate will bring, says Chuck Hulse, an associate research professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who also teaches in UVM’s environmental program. Predicting how climate change will play out and affect humans is difficult, he says, because of all the variables.
“The climate has changed before. The Earth’s cycles are huge,” he says, adding that Isle La Motte was at one time a tropical sea and a mile-thick glacier carved the distinctive shape of Camel’s Hump. “How big of a perspective are you willing to take on?” Hulse asks.
Vermont’s changing weather isn’t the only uncertainty surrounding the project. Grass says the federal budget cuts known as sequestration could affect its funding. He believes the money is relatively secure, but adds, “Those numbers are by no means in stone.”