Bridging the Gap Series : October 2021

Bridging the Gap: Climate change and public health, with professor Jun Wu

Introduction from Vice Chancellor Steve Goldstein

From prolonged droughts to dangerous sun exposure, the weather affects human health in numerous ways, and climate change is dialing up environmental health threats. Disease-carrying insects have expanded their range, heat waves are hotter and last longer, and storms have become more extreme.

Citing public health concerns, more than 70 major medical groups in the U.S. released a call to action in June 2019 declaring climate change “a true public health emergency.” And just last month, a group of global medical thought leaders released a joint editorial piece in the New England Journal of Medicine demanding emergency action for alarming global temperature increases.

The risks posed by unhealthy climate conditions disproportionately harm marginalized groups including people with disabilities and chronic diseases and low-income families and individuals – and climate change is deepening existing health disparities.

This installment of our Bridging the Gap series, where we focus on health in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion, focuses on the intersection of climate change and public health. Jun Wu, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the UCI Program in Public Health, offers the insightful proposal to include climate change as another social determinant of health. Professor Wu makes the case that those working on climate change should include health as they evaluate the impact climate change on the welfare of individuals and their communities. She also details some of the interdisciplinary work her UCI research team is pursuing to generate evidence to support local efforts to reduce health challenges exacerbated by climate change.

Earlier this week, the OC Times published three stories on how community activists like Jun Wu and Dr. Shahir Masri, an air pollution scientist with UCI, are partnering with the Orange County Environmental Justice organization and other local agencies to address environmental justice issues in vulnerable neighborhoods. Their efforts range from addressing indoor air pollution concerns from factory workers to keeping low-income Santa Ana residents safe from toxic lead. UCI’s interdisciplinary research efforts are paramount to addressing environmental health disparities.

Climate experts tell us that while some warming is inevitable in the near term there is still a window of time to avert the worst impacts. As academic leaders and public health experts, it is our responsibility to generate actionable solutions to protect the planet and to address health disparities.

Is Climate Change the Newest Social Determinant of Health?

By Jun Wu, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the UCI Program in Public Health

Professor Jun Wu

It’s no secret that climate change has been described as the greatest global health threat of the 21st century. This crisis is impacting people in real ways—right now. Extreme heat, more frequent and extreme weather events, and rising sea levels degrade air and water quality, threaten food supplies, and displace millions of people. All these factors contribute to diminished health and well-being for the entire world. On top of this, a long legacy of segregation means people of color and people with low incomes disproportionately bear the impact of climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s latest report acknowledges that climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable. As we work to create solutions, it’s critically important to recognize and address how climate change exacerbates social, economic, and health inequities.

As a University of California, Irvine researcher deeply embedded at the intersection of public health and environmental sciences, mine and my colleague’s firsthand experience in this space is why everyone working on climate change should be thinking about health and well-being for all.

Let’s take for example the current fire season, which has become less seasonal and more year-round, in California has already included four blazes that ranked in the top 20 largest wildfires on record in the state by acreage. My colleague Shahir Masri, an assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment in UCI’s Program in Public Health, found that elderly and low-income residents suffered a disproportionate share of the fires’ impacts. In a paper published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, we found that rural areas, often characterized by higher poverty rates, unemployment, and a greater number of low-income residents, sustained more wildfire damage than other parts of the state. Rural or otherwise, the communities hardest hit by wildfires almost always included higher proportions of elderly residents. As a follow-up study, my team is looking at various factors that impact indoor air quality, such as building characteristics (e.g. house age and type of buildings), that can lead to disproportionate exposure to wildfire air pollutants in sub-populations.

Study finds that California wildfires disproportionately affect elderly and poor residents.

In a collaborative study with colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, my graduate student Yi Sun examined the joint effects of heatwaves, air pollution, and green space on the risk of preterm birth in California using 1.9 million birth certificate records for singleton births (2005–2013). The study found that extreme heatwaves can increase the likelihood of preterm births for those pregnant women living in areas with high air pollution and low green space. The study recommended a series of targeted interventions, such as extreme heat warning systems, reduced outdoor activities, increased cooling zones, especially among women living in high pollution and low green space areas.

Knowing the beneficial health effects of green space in mitigating climate change and air pollution impacts, in a recent study with my fellow researchers at the UCI Program in Public Health and across campus at the UCI Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, we used machine learning and street view imagery to examine the types of green space (e.g. tree, low-lying vegetation, grass) in Los Angeles County as well as the socio-economic disparities of green space exposure. We discovered that in Los Angeles County, disadvantaged communities had substantively less street green space. We hope that this work will encourage governments and urban planners to consider the role of the type and coverage of green space in reducing health disparity and promoting better well-being.

In an ongoing research study supported by the Solutions that Scale at UCI, our team examines how climate adaptation factors (e.g. green space especially tree canopy, surface reflectance, and air conditioning use) can modify the heat impact on pregnancy outcomes in Southern California subpopulations. Our research will provide empirical evidence for policy makers to direct interventions for climate change related health issues.

Climate change will continue to impact all facets of health, and on its own, is a social determinant of health. The devastation caused by fires, floods, rising temperatures and mass displacement will be catastrophic if we don’t act now. I’ve dedicated my career to studying risks to public health and speaking on behalf of my colleagues, public health has a critical role to play on the front lines addressing those health impacts. Literally and figuratively, “bridging the gap” between disciplines will allow us to collectively tackle the day’s pressing issues and devise and implement solutions to help those most in need.

By working hand-in-hand with diverse stakeholders and experts, we can develop strategies and solutions that address climate change, reduce health disparities, and maximize health benefits.

About the Series

Vice Chancellor Goldstein

Started in June 2020, Bridging the Gap is a series curated by Vice Chancellor Steve Goldstein, as a way to examine and share our work in closing all gaps to achieve health equity through awareness, understanding, compassion and action. You can also receive the series in your inbox by subscribing to the newsletter.

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