Efforts will focus on minimizing health impacts of climate change

In recent years, climate change has become a politically-charged topic.

Some argue that human behavior needs to change to prevent global warming, while others counter that attempts to protect the environment stifle economic growth.

However, the Crook County Emergency Preparedness Committee, which is comprised of representatives from multiple medical and local government agencies, is taking a different approach to climate change. Their focus is on what the community needs to do to keep citizens healthy as changes occur in the future.

“We recognize over time that the climate changing can makes things better or worse (for health),” said Karen Yeargain, preparedness coordinator for the Crook County Health Department.

With the help of $30,000 awarded to the Crook County Health Department two years ago, the committee has been studying forecasted changes and looking at what health concerns that would create.

Based on global climate models compiled by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Model for Interdisciplinary Research on Climate, and HadCM climate model, Crook County is projected to see an increase in the annual average temperature of 2.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit for the mid-to-late 21st Century.

“With looking at temperature increases of about three to five degrees over the next 100 years, what would that do?” Yeargain said.

The committee first determined that such a change could affect the snowpack, which causes three main health concerns that will have to be addressed.

First of all, a smaller snow pack could cause more drought, which increases the risk of wildfire and the suffocating smoke that comes with it. Yeargain explained that the smoke creates greater health risks for those who suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Another concern is flooding. In addition to a smaller snowpack, Yeargain noted that increasing average temperatures tend to create more volatile weather.

“If you watch what is happening worldwide, the storms that seem to be happening are less predictable,” she said. “They are more intense.”

The committee is concerned that the smaller snowpack coupled with less predictable storms will create a situation where Crook County experiences heavier rains over a drier landscape, leading to flash floods.

“When we have significant floods, if it gets to where it’s impacting houses, you will have mold growth,” Yeargain said. “For somebody with respiratory problems, excessive mold growth in a house can trigger respiratory attacks.”

The other concern is that the warmer weather will change the environment enough to increase the likelihood of water-borne diseases such as giardia and e-coli.

“If you have a little warmer water, those things tend to live more,” Yeargain remarked.

Having completed the lengthy analysis part of the work, the committee has begun looking at how they will deal with the health concerns climate change could cause. The Health Department recently received another $5,000 grant that they will use to create some long-range strategies.

Yeargain acknowledge that they are not trying to change the behavior that is driving the climate change. Instead, they are trying to minimize the health impact as much as possible. So far, they haven’t developed any sure answers, but are considering some alternatives. For example, they may create educational materials for people with chronic respiratory problems to help them better prepare for increased wildfire smoke.

In the end, the committee hopes their efforts will provide Crook County residents the best possible outcome despite the risks that climate change present.

“By taking a look at the impact of climate change in Crook County, we can be better positioned to decrease the negative impacts to our community's health, local economy, food production, and health care needs,” Yeargain concluded.