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A call to action: YSPH co-hosts first climate symposium

March 20, 2024
by Jane E. Dee

“Preparing for a Healthy Connecticut in the Face of Climate Change,” was not only the topic of a recent climate change meeting co-hosted by the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) and the state Department of Public Health (DPH) ­— it was a call to action.

YSPH staff, faculty, and alumni shared their expertise on the profound impact of climate change on community health during the 2024 Connecticut Symposium on Climate Change and Health at YSPH on March 6.

Climate change “is an urgent challenge and a significant opportunity for public health preparedness in Connecticut and throughout the country,” Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz, a Yale College graduate, said in her welcoming remarks to the nearly 200 participants, including local public health workers and government officials.

Jennifer Wang, executive director of the Yale School of Public Health’s Center on Climate Change and Health (YCCCH) said YSPH is collaborating with state and national climate leaders to put programs in place in Connecticut that protect local communities from excessive heat, worsening air pollution, extreme weather, and the growing number of cases of mosquito- and tick-borne diseases. YCCCH’s Climate Change and Health in Connecticut 2020 Report addresses these and other challenges, and urges swift action by state leaders and residents alike to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The state DPH and YCCCH worked together to secure a Climate-Ready States & Cities Initiative (CRSCI) grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to implement the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework in Connecticut. Among BRACE’s goals is to support local health departments in responding to climate impacts on population health, Wang said.

Other states and cities that are using CRSCI grants to address climate change include North Carolina, New York state, and San Francisco. North Carolina designed a Heat Health Alert System that uses social media posts, while New York’s Be a Buddy Program helps assist people who need to go to cooling centers like air-conditioned libraries and schools. San Francisco’s Heat and Air Quality Resilience Plan maps communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

In Connecticut, climate change also will impact vulnerable populations in neighborhoods where there are few trees, homes without air conditioning, and a lack of transportation, said Hannah Beath, MPH ‘23, director of the DPH’s Office of Climate and Health (OCH).

In 2023, the OCH published a list of resources, the Connecticut Climate Impact Compendium – a compilation of journal articles, state and federal reports, and other documents for the public, academic partners, and state and local officials and policymakers. In addition, the Connecticut DPH created a directory of climate and health resources, including journal articles, state, and federal reports.

The CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health’s Climate and Health Program is working closely with DPH and YCCCH to support health resilience-building in Connecticut. The center, a resource for federal, state, local and tribal health agencies, offers tools, guides, and processes to help assess human vulnerability to the health effects of climate change, said Kat Sisler, a health scientist with the Climate and Health Program.

Climate Science

YSPH researchers shared their scientific findings at the symposium , including a study in Connecticut, using data from the state’s mortality database, that found that the number of deaths from extreme heat and moderate heat in Connecticut was 31 (extreme heat) and 43 (moderate heat) deaths per year from 2005 to 2016, resulting in a total of 74 heat-related deaths per year. Extreme heat is defined as the temperature above the 90th percentile of the warm-season temperature from May to September, said Kai Chen, assistant professor of epidemiology (environmental health) and deputy faculty director of YCCCH.

Chen was the first author of another study that showed that as the climate is warming, the world’s population is aging. The study shows that an aging global population is expected to be a major driver of climate-related deaths.

Extreme heat also could enhance the health effects of wildfire smoke. With a warming climate, the health burden of exposure to extreme heat and wildfire smoke is expected to increase, Chen said.

Wildfire smoke contains small particles called fine particulate matter. “The wildfire smoke had such a high concentration of these particles that it turned the sky orange, which tells you how polluted the air is during a smoke wave,” Chen said.

Goudarz Molaei, associate clinical professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases), said climate change may affect the incidence of vector-borne diseases. Cases of human disease from infected ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas have tripled in the past 13 years. There were 27,388 reported cases in the U.S. in 2004 compared to 96,075 cases in 2016, Molaei said.

Populations of tick species are on the rise in Connecticut as the climate warms, including blacklegged ticks, American dog ticks, and lone star ticks. Surveillance programs are imperative, Molaei said.

Steps that can be taken to protect vulnerable populations include promoting the health of migrant populations, enhancing vector surveillance and risk-mapping in vulnerable neighborhoods, and having a plan for vector-borne diseases following natural disasters.

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on March 20, 2024