Climate Change, Health Equity 'Inextricably Linked': Vulnerable Populations Most at Risk from Harmful Effects

By Wahowiak, Lindsey | The Nation's Health, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Climate Change, Health Equity 'Inextricably Linked': Vulnerable Populations Most at Risk from Harmful Effects


Wahowiak, Lindsey, The Nation's Health


Third in a series on health equity, which ties into the theme of APHA's 2018 Annual Meeting and Expo: "Creating the Healthiest Nation: Health Equity Now."

CLIMATE CHANGE is here, happening right now. And it is most harming people who are already facing health and economic hardships.

Climate change has the worst effects on people who have low health equity--those who do not have adequate opportunities to be healthier. People who lack health equity are more likely to be impacted negatively by social determinants of health, which are the conditions in which people live, learn, work and play.

"There are lots of connections between climate change and health equity, so they're actually inextricably interconnected," Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH, director of the Center for

Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute and an APHA member, told The Nation's Health. "Health inequities themselves contribute to placing individuals and communities at risk of climate change's effects."

The risks of climate change are not spread equally among people in cities, states, countries or globally. People who are most affected are likely to be part of vulnerable populations, and their health might already be poor. The effects of climate change hit those groups hardest, and make their health even worse.

"Though we are all at risk to the health threats of climate change, some groups are more vulnerable, and thereby less resilient, to the health threats," Natasha DeJarnett, PhD, MPH, an environmental health policy analyst at APHA, told The Nation's Health. "In fact, climate change intensifies the risks for these populations."

In 2018, the World Health Organization noted that specific populations are more vulnerable to climate change: People living on small islands or other coastal regions, megacities and mountainous and polar regions are especially at risk, as are children, particularly in poor countries. Health effects are also more severe for elderly people and people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Jalonne White-Newsome, PhD, MS, has seen the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations firsthand. Now the senior program officer in the environment program at the Kresge Foundation and an APHA member, White-Newsome was spurred into working on climate and health equity more than a decade ago, when she was the primary caregiver for her elderly grandparents, who lived in Detroit. Her grandparents had chronic health problems, including heart disease, and in the summertime heat their health got worse. Because her grandparents were facing dementia and Alzheimer's disease, they did not recognize that their environment --the heat, no air conditioning--was putting them at risk. It moved White-Newsome to take action.

"There's a certain set of folks that are always dealing with multiple risks, multiple health issues, and often they're the most impacted by climate change," she told The Nation's Health.

Rudolph noted that often the same systems contributing to poor health also contribute to climate change: Poverty keeps people from accessing health care, meaning they do not get the preventive care that might protect them from health issues such as asthma until they are already sick. Poverty also keeps people from accessing homeowners' or renters' insurance, which means they may not be able to make home improvements to protect their health, such as mold remediation. They also may not have the means to move somewhere with fewer health risks from cli mate change, such as a home with air conditioning, or further from polluting industry. And when disaster strikes and displaces them, people in poverty do not have the resources to rebound.

According to WHO, areas with weak health infrastructure--particularly developing countries --are least able to cope with, prepare for and respond to climate change. But areas that do not see investment in the health and support of their populations also are at great risk. …

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