Hotter summers, wetter winters ahead mean more health problems in Multnomah County

October 9, 2013

A new Multnomah County report finds heat waves, air quality and mosquitoes will worsen in the Portland-area because of climate change.

In the first-ever analysis of how rising temperature and changes in precipitation will affect Multnomah County residents, Health Officer Dr. Justin Denny says there is reason to be concerned.

“For the first time, we’ve identified the specific health issues that our community will face,’’ Denny said. “But we’ve also identified ways the community can protect people and help them adapt to conditions ahead.’’

The “Climate Change and Public Health Preparation Plan,’’ was released Wednesday, Oct. 9, at a news conference at the Baltazar Ortiz Community Center, 6736 N.E. Killingsworth St. in Portland. The report was delivered to nearly 40 community members, media and county employees at the center. Raquel Aguillion, a family intervention specialist, translated the event into Spanish.

Temperatures have already risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in this region in the last century, according to the report. And last month was one of the wettest Septembers since 1872. Researchers expect drier, hotter summers and warmer, wetter winters in Multnomah County.

Dr. Denny identified three key problems:

- Heat waves are becoming more common and can have an even greater effect in such an historically mild climate. Warming is most intense along Portland’s I-5 corridor and in urban heat islands with lots of asphalt and few trees.

- Air pollution will worsen and boost breathing diseases like asthma and allergies.

- Mosquito season is expected to grow longer and new, disease-bearing kinds are expected to move in.

Multnomah County’s response:

- Better track heat-related health problems and hazards and educate the community to prevent them.

- Continue working with families to improve indoor air quality, and partner agencies to improve outdoor air quality. Better track air quality and link those suffering to services to keep them safe and healthy.

- Continue monitoring mosquito-borne disease, work with building and zoning authorities to reduce habitat, develop culturally competent materials for vulnerable communities.

The report’s lead author, Kari Lyons-Eubanks, said the report shows those most vulnerable are our elders, our homeless population, people of color and low-income community members.

“These are the same communities that experience disparities in health outcomes already,’’ she said.

Lyons-Eubanks said those most vulnerable often live in substandard housing conditions that already have mold and mildew and exacerbate their children’s asthma; they are elders who are socially isolated who may not be mobile but live in a heat island; they may have limited access to parks and greenspaces because they lack control over their housing choices.

“They’re the ones who don’t have the means to adapt or get out of town,’’ she said.

The report was one of the key steps agreed upon in the 2009 Multnomah County/City of Portland Climate Action Plan , a 40-year roadmap of what residents can expect.

Commissioner Loretta Smith said, “Just knowing this information makes a difference in the way that we consider funding and structuring our work because it’s the data we need to make strong, effective decisions.’’

Community members, such as Lucia Llanos, asked how people, many of whom were learning of the health issues from the report, can be involved further.

Dr. Denny said it underscores the county’s commitment to educating, preventing and responding to these issues.

“Relying on community strength and voice is essential,’’ said Ben Duncan, of Multnomah County’s Health Equity Initiative.

“This report arms us for a better future,” he said. You can read the report here.