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Health Department’s New Response to Climate Change

By Catalina Jaramillo

It wasn’t too difficult for the crowd of around 40 seniors gathered at the McPherson Public Library in Kensington on Wednesday to get into the right mindset for the evening’s discussion: How to prepare for emergencies caused by climate change.

Thermometers read 90 degrees in Philadelphia, but it felt like 96. There were heavy rains and thunderstorms scattered throughout the day. And the entire metro area was hit with a Code Orange air quality alert, meaning unhealthy air pollution concentration for people with asthma, heart or lung diseases, children, and the elderly.

That might explain why seniors came from all across the city to attend the extreme heat workshop.

“Have you experienced expressions of climate change first hand?” Drexel University’s Alison Kenner asked the audience.

They replied with loud yes. It’s hotter, one said. It’s wetter, another added. I’ve had health issues, one woman said. I’ve had more asthma, agreed someone else.

“I have asthma and I’m trying to find what I can do [when it is] so hot and muggy,” attendee Sharon Williams said. She doesn’t have air conditioner at home, so she comes to the library whenever it’s really hot. “It affects my breathing,” she said.

Hot and muggy summers in Philadelphia are not new. And for years, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health has run heat awareness campaigns, stressing the health impacts it can have on vulnerable populations and advising citizens to “stay cool” during extremely hot and humid days.

What’s new is the Health Department explicitly connecting the health impacts from excessive heat to climate change. Local health departments in the whole country are only now beginning to expressly make that connection. But according to the U.S. Climate and Health Alliance, the Philadelphia Health Department is ahead of many of their peers.

“Summers in Philadelphia have always been hot, but now they’re getting hotter and wetter,” Health Department’s Marialisa Ramirez said on the workshop.

Philadelphia’s Health Department is one of 12 local health departments participating in a national Climate and Health Learning Collaborative for urban health departments. And a team lead by preparedness manager Jessica Caum has been working with community associations and city agencies to coordinate efforts through a Climate Change and Health Advisory Group.

Wednesday’s “staying cool in a climate change” workshop, one in a series of three held in south, west and north Philadelphia, was one of the products of that.

Clear Air Council’s Russell Zerbo said this is the first time the Health Department is coming out to communities and saying, explicitly: Climate change may impact your health.

“The news is really the Health Department walking into cooling centers and saying: This is a cooling center, we want you to be safe this summer because of climate change,” Zerbo said. “It’s sort of putting them in a service base position, which was not, I don’t think, before.”

Cooling centers are public spaces with air conditioning. They can be libraries, recreation centers, senior centers, or other cool, public buildings. But the Health Department does not publish an active list of them because sometimes the air conditioning in a given building might not working. Ramirez recommended that the audience call 311 before heading to a nearby library or rec center.

Zerbo said until this year, the department was announcing the health impacts of climate change through their website or in the news, sending people to the heatline (215-765-9040) “but in terms of physically going out and doing it, that wasn’t happening.”

In an email, the Health Department’s James Garrow confirmed this was their first time participating in these events.

“While working with the Office of Emergency Management to update the City’s heat response plan, we heard about these types of events and thought we could use them to help further our existing efforts to distribute information about excessive heat and what Philadelphians can do to help survive the heat,” Garrow said.

Zerbo doesn’t blame the department for not directly talking with the communities before about the connection between the dangers of heat and climate change. Climate change is a really complex issue, he said, and a lot of organizations are struggling on how to communicate its impacts and solutions. Drinking more water or keeping an air conditioner on full blast are not real solutions for climate change, he said. They only address the symptoms, not the underlying predicament.

The workshop addressed that problem through different angles. The audience was told staying hydrated and cool is vital, but experts also mention that air conditioners could be creating more of a problem by making cities get hotter.

Julia Menzo from Liberty Lutheran spoke about the importance of establishing ways to contact your family and have enough food and water in cases of power outages. Deepa Mankikar from the National Nurse-Led Care Consortium told people how to keep healthy indoor environments avoiding toxic cleaning products and keeping pests away. And Thomas Flaherty from the Energy Coordinating Agency offered tips for reducing energy conservation, like painting your roof white or disconnecting appliances when they’re not in use.

Drexel’s Kenner has been doing this workshops, independently, for four years. She said there’s three things she’s learned from them. First, that people appreciate someone breaking climate change down and bringing it to a neighborhood scale, showing them how they will be affected. Second, how difficult it is for renters to negotiate things like windows painted shut by their landlords. And third, that difficulty breathing is one of the first issues people mention.

“Changes in weather also trigger asthma attacks,” said Keener, who is writing a book about asthma and climate change. “Because the climate is changing and ecology is changing, people who have lived with asma their whole lives, may be unprepared for new environmental conditions.”

Gloria Marrero has had asthma since she was 14 years old. “Heat leaves me with no air,” she said in Spanish. “That’s why we came, searching for answers.”

According to a index, Philadelphia ranks number 10 among cities that will feel the impact of climate change the most. And the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says Philly is the third most challenging city to live with asthma in the country.