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What Impact Could Climate Change Have On Public Health?

Aired 5/24/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

How should the county's health services and public safety officials prepare for the impact of climate change? We speak to Paula Murray, with the County of San Diego's Division of Public Health Services, about how increases in wildfires, flooding and heatwaves could impact public health in the future.

The number of wildfires in San Diego is expected to increase as a result of climate change. In this photo, a San Diego firefighter battles flames in Tierrasanta during 2003 wildfires.
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Above: The number of wildfires in San Diego is expected to increase as a result of climate change. In this photo, a San Diego firefighter battles flames in Tierrasanta during 2003 wildfires.

Paula Murray will hold a discussion titled "Is Climate Change a Public Health Issue for San Diego?" tonight at 5:30 at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

How should the county's health services and public safety officials prepare for the impact of climate change? We speak to Paula Murray, with the County of San Diego's Division of Public Health Services, about how increases in wildfires, flooding and heatwaves could impact public health in the future.

Guest

Paula Murray, Health Services Project Coordinator for the County of San Diego Division of Public Health Services

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, this is KPBS Midday Edition. Is the deadly tornado season in the midwest a direct result of climate change? Weather experts still can't say for sure. But what scientists do know is that over the next decades, climate change will most likely affect San Diego's water supply, agriculture, coastline, temperatures, and even our health. I'd like to welcome my guest, Paula Murray, with the San Diego County public health services. She contributed to a study of the possible effects of climate change on our health through the year 2050. Paula Murray is hosting a public forum on the subject tonight in Balboa Park. And thank you for coming in.

MURRAY: Hi, I'm glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And if our listeners have a question about the health effects of climate change, more allergies or more heat stroke, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. I imagine San Diego would be quite different 40 years from now, even without climate change. How do we predict our population will change by, as you say, the year 2050?

MURRAY: Sure. For one thing we'll have much more population. Right now we're at about three point one million, and it's anticipated that we'll have four point five million residents in San Diego County in 2050. In addition to that, our population is aging. Myself included. And it's estimated that 25 percent of our population in 2050 will be 65 years of age or older. We all know that we're living longer, which is good, but that does mean that we're -- more of us are in that age category, and most of us, as we age, have some health related issues that could be negatively impacted by climb change.

CAVANAUGH: I think this is a fascinating look at climate, the possible effects of climate change. I don't think it's been broken down this way before of course certainly not for San Diego, such a local emphasis. So why are public health, officials concerned about the effects of climate change.

MURRAY: Well, I agree with the statement you made that people think of climate change and they tend to focus on the environment. You know, you think about the arctic ice masses melting, the sea rising, the sea levels rising, drought and flooding, so it tends to have an environmental focus. We sometimes forget that humans, we're part of the environment. We're part of the ecological balance of the world, and obviously anything that impacts the environment will impact us as humans. And that's really what public health is trying to do. There's been a push over the past couple of years to get that message out, that it isn't just an environmental issue, it's a human health issue. It's real, it's here now, it's not something 20 or 30 years in the future. We're actually seeing some impacts now. And it's something that we can make some actionable changes in our behaviors to mitigate or prevent some of the negative impact of climate change.

CAVANAUGH: What is -- you're intriguing me. What are some of the impacts on our health from the changing climate that we are actually experiencing now?

MURRAY: Obviously with -- and a lot of the changes related to climate are man-made, although there certainly are natural events that contribute to climate changes. But certainly air quality. California has one of the poorest air qualities in the country, which is amazing in many ways because so many people think of California as the healthiest place in the world. I come from the east coast originally, and I always thought Californians were healthy and active and tanned and spent all their time on the beach, etc. So it's ironic that our air quality is so poor. So that's one area is air quality. Obviously asthma, allergies, any kind of respiratory illness, which again as we age we tend to have more respiratory problems, will be negatively impacted by poor air quality.

CAVANAUGH: And how does the climate change actually affect the air quality? We're so used to hearing air quality affected by automobiles and by other, let's say, other industries or even with a weather inversion. Will we be seeing more sort of inversions that trap particulates in our area and therefore --

MURRAY: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

MURRAY: Now I have to confuse, I'm not a climate change expert on the science of it. But that is what the theory behind climate change is that the air is warming, the surface of the earth, the oceans, the temperature is rising, and so we're trapping many of the particles that we produce through our automobiles and through our industry, and they're being trapped, and they're having a negative impact on the air that we breathe.

CAVANAUGH: It seems -- excuse me, it seems to me that a lot more people, maybe this is just my group of friend, a lot more people seem to be coming down with allergies that they say they never had before. I know that's just anecdotal, but is that the type of thing you're talking about?

MURRAY: Well, yes, and my friends are saying the same thing. So we must be in the same group of friends. Some of that is related to climate change. Like anything, it's a complex issue. Part of that is because of here in San Diego we have a lot of nonnative plants that have been brought into the area, and again, some of that's related to climate change. Some new vectors of disease have come into the area again because we have had a warming in the area. So there's a lot of factors, but certainly climate change is a piece of that puzzle.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Paula Murray with San Diego County public health services. She's gonna be giving a talk tonight in Balboa Park about the possible health effects of climate change right here in San Diego. And if you've got a question with that, we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You mentioned just a moment ago that all of this is very complicated, that you can't really sort of point to just one thing in the mix and say that's a direct cause of that. But I think in this report what you do is you try to blend all the factors that are happening in San Diego at the same time. For instance, as temperatures rise between now and 2050, as predicted by many climate scientists, what possible health effects might there be from that?

MURRAY: Right. And in addition to climate temperature rising, there will also be more extremes. So we'll see heat waves, for example, here in San Diego that we may not have soon in the past. That has a negative impact on certain vulnerable populations, such as very young, those under four years of age are more seriously impacted by a heat wave. Again, the elderly. Again, those with respiratory problems. And individuals on certain medications. People who work outdoors. All of those populations may be negatively impacted by heat levels that we've never had before. Now, we tend to think of San Diego as having a dry climate, but we may start to see more humidity, which actually puts folks at higher risk when you have the high temperature and the high humidity. Even with the dry climate here, if the heat gets up high enough, it puts people at risk.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: For a longer period of time.

MURRAY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And with more elderly people living here in San Diego.

MURRAY: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Does public health -- did you examine the risk of more wild fires? Is that kind of --

MURRAY: Of course, yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes.

MURRAY: Yes, wild fires are obviously a big issue here in San Diego. Anybody who was here in 2003 or 2007 is very aware of it. And of course climate change contributes to that change that we face. We had a drought for years. It seemed to go on for five or seven years. It was the worst drought we'd seen here in San Diego for a long period of time. And so everything dried up. Then next thing you know, wee having heavy rains, just this past winter. We had heavy rains, the San Diego river flooded.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

DEFENDANT: So now, we're setting up a scenario where we're ripe for another wild fire in the next few years because we have had a lot of vegetative growth, and yet we'll probably go into another dry period, everything will dry up, and that's the fuel that wild fires need. Now, wild fires also need high winds and high dry temperature. Santa Ana conditions.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly, yes.

MURRAY: For us here in San Diego. And we certainly will likely see those some time in the next few months. What we can control from a health issue and a human behavior issue is the fuel. So it's very important that residents who live in rural areas and have a lot of brush around go in there and clear that out.

CAVANAUGH: Let me interrupt you because we have a caller on the lineup.

MURRAY: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: Nicole is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Nicole, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

NEW SPEAKER: My question is in reference to -- you had mentioned about climate change. Do you think there is any correlation with the alarming rate of lime disease and the multiple co-infections that is actually in all 50 states now and certain areas of California, it's epidemic proportion? Do you think there's a correlation between that and the temperature change?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.

MURRAY: Yes, definitely. Lime disease, west Nile virus, those are all new diseases that we weren't dealing with prior to some of the recent years with the climate change. Again, you know, there's international travel and the fact that these vectors can be easily transmitted from the east coast to the west coast. But yes, that's definitely connected to climate change. The fact that those vectors have now been brought into our region and have settled in, and are now adapted to our setting, and therefore pose a risk to folks when they go out into the wilderness and potentially get bitten by one of those vectors.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine, if you see more humidity in San Diego you may see more mosquitos, and you may see more mosquito born diseases, so that's how you're making this kind of projection based on what the climate scientists are saying is actually going to happen in the environment.

MURRAY: Right. And west Nile virus which is transmitted by mosquitos, that is a perfect example of that impact from climate change. How far, west Nile virus is also a great example of how other factors play in. We know that right now, we're in an economic recession, and therefore we have homes that have been forever closed, have been abandoned, they have swimming pools in their backyard that weren't drained, they have standing water. And that also contributes to the potential for breeding grounds for mosquitos. And since we know west Nile virus is in the area, it can easily then be transmitted.

CAVANAUGH: Is one of the reasons that you're holding this forum and you're trying to get this information out to let residents know sort of on a case by case basis, when it comes to wild fires, cut back the brush, when it comes to west Nile virus, make sure that the pools are drained, each and every possible threat that we have can be mitigated to some extent?

MURRAY: Exactly. That is what public health is about in a way, identifying population wide threats and doing whatever we can or encouraging folks to do what they can to mitigate or prevent the impact, the negative impact from climate change, from the economy, from heat waves, you know, from everything that's out there.

CAVANAUGH: Is this something people want to think about or they would rather not? I mean, what kind of reception do you get when you --

MURRAY: I'm not sure. I think people like to hear that they can take some action that happens to protect them, protects their families, perhaps contributes to the community. So that's the approach I take. I like to feel that I have some control over my life. And so if I can dump that water out in my backyard and prevent mosquitos, I get a small tiny satisfaction from that, knowing that perhaps I've contributed to the health of the community, the health of my family. So that's what I try to focus on. Some people don't ever want to hear about the bad things that are out there, but that doesn't make them go away. So I try to take a more positive approach that we're all in this together, and if you can take some small action that helps yourself, your family, the community, that's a good thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Paula Murray with San Diego County public health services. Paula will hold a discussion titled is climate change a public issue for San Diego. That's tonight at if I have 30 at the Ruben H. Fleet science center in Balboa Park. Thank you so much, Paula.

MURRAY: Well, thank you very much, and I hope lots of folks turn out this evening.

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