Climate Change Health Impacts to Hit Some Coloradans Hardest
DENVER – Public health experts in Colorado are narrowing in on the effects of climate change on human health. And they're warning that people who work outdoors, low-income families, seniors and children are among those who will bear the brunt of rising temperatures.
Rosemary Rochford, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz, directs the new Colorado Consortium on Climate and Health. She says climate change may not create new diseases, but it's likely to amplify conditions that already exist.
"So, imagine if you have a child going back to school in a hot classroom, what is that going to do if they've got asthma?" she asks. "It's really going to amplify the problems for our kids, and especially those children that don't have access to good schools with air-conditioning units."
More than half of Denver public schools - mostly in low-income areas - are not fully air conditioned. Research has also found higher rates of kidney disease in men who work outdoors due to heat stress and dehydration.
Colorado's average temperature is expected to increase by as much as five degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, according to Colorado Water Conservation Board scientists.
Policy analyst Chrissy Esposito, a co-author of a new Colorado Health Institute report on climate, says airborne pollutants tend to "cook" during hotter days, creating ground-level ozone that can cause problems for people with asthma and heart conditions. Esposito says her research confirms that warmer conditions are also causing bigger and more frequent wildfires.
"Wildfires release a lot of particulate matter, and this particulate matter embeds into our lungs and causes lung irritation, lung diseases, and can also restrict our lung function," she explains.
She adds a majority of Coloradans recognize that climate change is happening, but a smaller portion understands how a warming planet puts them at risk.
Rochford says the new CU research group is aimed at bringing insights together from medicine, public health and climate science to help provide a more thorough picture of what the state faces going forward.
"We do want to be cognizant of what we know and what we don't know, and that we need to understand more of the impacts - so that we can help the population here respond to this problem, and adapt to it, so we improve the health of everybody," Rochford adds.
This story was produced with original reporting from Jaclyn Zubrzycki for The Colorado Trust.