Experts: Climate Poses Significant Public Health Threat
In Nebraska, heat and pollution leave many with climate change-related health issues
By: Grace Gorenflo
A whistle blows, echoing off the glossy wood planks of the gymnasium floor. Two sweaty teens butt heads, arms flailing, each grappling to make the first move.
Soon, the one draped in a gold-and-blue Omaha North High Magnet School jersey twirls a finger in the air. The action stops.
His wrestling coach jogs over to the mat, a small device in hand. He gives it to the kid, now hunched over and wheezing. The wrestler sucks in a lungful of albuterol, holds it for 10 seconds, then nods at the referee.
The whistle blows, and the teens go at it once again.
“Every match, I have an inhaler in my pocket,” Coach Steven Kirchner said. “And I hate feeling the inhaler in my pocket.”
Kirchner also hates that his team suffers from respiratory issues. More than that, he’s frustrated that these issues derail their confidence. But it’s critical that he holds on to the device.
The reason: Nearly half of his team — a group of teenagers whose magnet school is an eight-minute drive from the North Omaha Station coal-fired power plant — suffers from asthma, a condition linked to fossil fuel emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency.
When a coal plant emits a high concentration of sulfur dioxide, the colorless gas reacts with other atmospheric compounds to form tiny particles, according to the EPA. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, triggering an asthma attack and other respiratory conditions.
“(Respiratory specialists) who work in the Omaha area, you ask them, where do you see the highest cases of asthma? And they’re like, you can circle it in Omaha,” said Jesse Bell, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska Medical Center professor of health and environment. “And it is North Omaha that’s one of the areas that is definitely susceptible.”
The quality of life in North Omaha is reflected in residents’ life expectancy rates, according to data from the Douglas County Health Department. Residents living in zip code 68111, where Omaha North is located, have the lowest average life expectancy in the county at 70.8 years, which is almost seven years lower than the county average of 77.5 years. North Omaha is 69% Black, according to the 2010 United States Census.
Less than 10 miles away, zip code 68154 in West Omaha has the county’s highest average life expectancy at 81.3 years — 10.5 years longer than parts of North Omaha. Here, the population is 89% white.
Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who represents North Omaha’s 11th District, says communities of color, and specifically Black communities, are often targeted when it comes to things like interstate or coal plant construction.
“We are never viewed as being truly American, so we are the expendable people, we are the un-people,” he said. “Whenever something has to be constructed that is detrimental, it will be in or very near our community.”
Though concentrated in North Omaha, these respiratory issues spread across the city. In 2019, Omaha placed ninth on the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s list of most challenging places to live with asthma based on estimated asthma prevalence, emergency room visits due to asthma and asthma-related deaths.
For many Americans, climate change has become a toxic cocktail. Coal plant fumes and wildfire smoke drifting through the air. Pollen seasons and heat waves increasing in length and intensity. Each extreme weather event worsening the spread of emerging infectious diseases.
“Climate change,” Bell said, “is a significant threat to the health of the American people.”
And Nebraska is far from immune.
Stuck with lengthening pollen seasons, the Cornhusker state is among the worst in the country for allergy sufferers. The wholesale burning of North Kansas crop stubble adds more smoke to the dangerous mix each spring, and summer heat waves edge eerily close to southern temperatures. Historic winter snowfalls lead to historic spring flooding, causing the loss of livelihood and homes — $2.5 billion in 2019 alone.
Meanwhile, mental and physical health both teeter on the brink.
“I think a lot of times people think of climate change in the context of ice caps melting, sea level rise or something that’s happening in other parts of the world,” Bell said. “People need to understand that the impacts are local, that we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change and they’re probably only going to become more severe or worse in the future.”
North Omaha is wedged between Interstate 680 and Nebraska 64, hugging the Missouri River in parts. Here, car exhaust fumes and coal plant pollution fill the air — and the lungs of some of Omaha’s poorest citizens.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gives the North Omaha coal plant an F rating in its “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People” report.
When there was talk about adding a freeway to the equation, Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers fought hard. Though an environmental impact statement was done, he says it focused on infrastructure, not the community.
“As far as the actual health of the people, there was no consideration given,” he said. “And nobody ever denied that it was going to be detrimental.”
Before the interstate was built, Chambers said many people would take North 24th Street or North 30th Street to get downtown and back home, stopping in at local businesses along the way.
Now, in a community with an average annual income of less than $14,000, according to the NAACP, drive-by is gone.
“The property that abuts both sides (of the street) will decrease in value, and the community deteriorates,” Chambers said. “In other words, we are an easy target, so we are targeted.”
After graduating from Iowa State University, Graham Jordison arrived in North Omaha, ready to see the coal-fired power plant retire. Working as a field organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, he attended neighborhood meetings and built relationships with community members, educating them on the dangerous effects of the plant.
The campaign was successful — in 2014 the Omaha Public Power District board voted to retire three of the plant’s coal-burning units and eventually convert them to natural gas. But Jordison says the coal plant isn’t the only thing threatening livelihoods in North Omaha.
“I’m trying to get them to realize that there’s this coal plant there, we need to shut this down, but there’s also a food desert there. There’s no access to medicine for miles in that community. There’s no businesses. They’re struggling to survive in all these other ways.”
This absence of infrastructure means disadvantaged populations lack resources to reduce or mitigate climate issues. In North Omaha, Jordison says residents have a 75% to 80% higher rate of asthma than the rest of the city.
The cherry on top is Nebraska’s ragweed pollen season, which in Omaha has increased by about 10 days over the last 20 to 30 years, according to Bell.
“If you’re a child or a parent with a child that has asthma, that’s 10 to 11 more days your child is potentially at risk for an asthma attack,” Bell said. “It’s 10 to 11 more days that your child could potentially go to the hospital. And that’s life threatening.”
Extreme heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, due to rising temperatures, it’s claiming more victims each year.
The CDC has reports of 1,130 heat-related fatalities from 2006-2015, though this doesn’t capture the full extent of the issue, as many deaths associated with extreme heat are not listed as such by a medical examiner.
Temperature extremes stop the body from regulating its internal temperature and have the most direct impact on human health, according to “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” done by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Heat illness can worsen chronic conditions, like respiratory and cardiovascular illness, and cause renal issues, kidney issues and preterm labor, according to Bell, a lead author on the report.
In Nebraska, the average annual temperature has increased 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, and it’s projected that the frequency of extreme heat occurrences will double by 2050, according to the Nebraska State Climate Office.
Martha Shulski, Ph.D., Nebraska’s state climatologist, says it’s only going to get worse.
“We’re going to get more hot days, and summers are going to be four to five degrees warmer by the middle of the century,” Shulski said.
Both Shulski and Bell mentioned concern about populations vulnerable to the heat, including farm workers, student athletes, the elderly and impoverished populations.
Urban populations as a whole are vulnerable, Shulski says, since cities are naturally warmer and are less likely to cool off at night.
And there’s no time like the present, Bell notes, to get a jump on dealing with the consequences of a warming planet.
“I always preach that we need to get ahead of this stuff before it becomes more significant in the future,” Bell says. “We need to be able to understand the impacts of extreme heat or any other climate-related disaster or climate-related event in Nebraska now, because if they continue to increase in intensity and frequency in the future, we need to be prepared for that.”
West Nile virus, a vaccine-less infection primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, is at a nationwide high in Nebraska.
In 2018, Nebraska had the highest number of West Nile virus cases in the country, according to the CDC. That year, 167 people in the country died of the infection, 11 of them in Nebraska.
Going forward, the virus is projected to increase in the northern part of the United States due to rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation, according to the Climate and Health assessment.
Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the UNMC College of Public Health, said climate change affects the distribution of vector-borne, water-borne and food-borne illnesses, causing increased risk in various parts of the world.
“As you change climate, nationally and globally … these vector distributions change, and so that puts people at risk for some disease, but it removes risk for other diseases, depending on what local conditions are. So climate change is a global issue with a local impact,” says Khan, former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response for the CDC.
Lyme disease, an illness transmitted through the bite of an infected tick, is also moving closer to Nebraska. Primarily found in the Northeast region of the country, Lyme disease is expanding westward.
The CDC receives 30,000 reports of Lyme disease cases each year, though this is only a fraction of infections that occur.
With all of these health concerns piling up, Bell says it’s important for physicians to talk to their patients about climate change-related illnesses. Physicians, he says, are a more trusted source of information in the community than researchers like himself.
“Anybody working in health care, public health and emergency preparedness should be aware and knowledgeable of climate change because it is an underlying threat to the health of the American people,” Bell says. “If we’re not addressing or understanding those potential threats, then that’s a big miss in the context of any of these different institutions.”
Despite popular preconceptions, Khan has been pleased to find that many Nebraskans are receptive to the conversation about climate change and health. He says he tries to focus on “nothing but the facts,” allowing the reports to speak for themselves.
“I’ve actually been quite surprised,” he said. “This is a rural state, and nobody understands weather and climate better than a farmer.”
The first step toward solving this public health emergency, Bell and Khan say, is a state climate action plan.
Nebraska is the top state in the country for health security, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit focused on health. Nebraska’s environmental health, however, is a different story.
“We do really poorly in environmental health,” Bell said. “We do excellent in a lot of these other things, but when it comes to environmental health … Nebraska as a whole doesn’t do very well. And one of the ways that we can improve our score is by creating a climate action plan.”
There are two sides to the action plan story: adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation, Bell says, is reducing fossil fuels, focusing on sustainability and bettering the future. But accepting the damage that’s already been done is important, too.
“We’re already facing the impacts of climate change. We need to have our infrastructure, our communities, more aware and more ready for the next whatever event we’re going to face,” he said.
The public health effects of climate change are far-reaching and heavy. But Bell finds promise in knowing the first step toward betterment is an attainable one.
“A lot of times when people talk about climate change, and they talk about some of these issues, they’re like, it’s so big … I’ve talked to numerous students and individuals where they just say, ‘I can’t get a hold of this,’” Bell said.
“I always tell them, I think this is a hopeful story. Because the first person you can change is yourself.”