Vancouver doctor sees impact of climate change on patient health
Editor’s Note: OPB recently welcomed a cohort of early-career journalists as part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio. They spent time talking to locals about how climate change is directly affecting them and their communities. This story is part of this series.
Two years ago, during record wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, a longtime patient of Dr. Genoveva O’Neill hesitated to go to her doctor’s appointment as smoke from the forest fires filled the air. An elderly black woman with limited access to transportation, she already had respiratory complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. She was afraid to go out, so she canceled her date. But this delay in treatment worsened her condition and she ended up in hospital.
COPD is just one of many underlying conditions that can be exacerbated by wildfire smoke caused by climate change. O’Neill wants to make that connection for her patients in Vancouver: she sees a higher incidence of lung disease, cardiovascular disorders, heart attacks and strokes. And it’s not just physical ailments: mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can occur. Washington and Oregon are already among the top states with the highest prevalence of mental illness.
O’Neill is already seeing the adverse effects of climate change in his patients, including patients from the Latinx community. Some are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of scorching hot days and dangerous smoke from wildfires, due to long working days outdoors.
“Because [Latinx community members] are more likely to work in industries that require outdoor work – agriculture, manufacturing, construction – we see many more health effects of climate change: hotter heat waves, longer droughts, wildfires said O’Neill.
According to a 2021 NPR/Columbia survey, workers of color are dying at a higher rate than white workers. Since 2010, one-third of heat-related deaths have occurred among Latinx farmworkers, even though they make up just 17% of the U.S. workforce.
O’Neill says she also sees more climate-related respiratory problems in infants.
“[We’re] seeing a lot more children developing things like asthma and breathing problems at a very early age – we’re talking three to six months, forcing them to be on long-term medication at rates we haven’t seen before,” O’ Neil says. Older children are also affected – a 12-year-old patient now needs an EpiPen after suffering a new, life-threatening allergic reaction.
It can get more complicated when the parents don’t speak English. As new symptoms emerge due to the smoke from the wildfires, O’Neill is spending more time to ensure caregivers and parents feel comfortable administering life-saving medication, such as an Epipen, to their children.
O’Neill strongly believes in the power of using the data and research already available to recognize the health impacts of climate change. She worries not only for her patients, but also for her own family.
“I worry about my children, not only the immediate effects on their breathing, but what kind of world are we delivering to them?” said O’Neill. “If we can make a change now, it will always make a difference to the world we are going to leave to our children.”