AmbulanceThis lovely warm weather has me thinking about gelato, swimming in lakes and—you guessed it—heat-related mortalities. I recently assumed the title of co-editor of Sightline Daily (Sightline Institute’s daily news roundup) with Jen Langston, a former colleague from the Seattle P-I. But last weekend I once again donned my journalist cap and on Saturday moderated a climate-related panel at the Association of Health Care Journalists’ national meeting in Seattle.

We don’t tend to think of the Northwest as being much at risk from the ill health effects that come with climate change (save, perhaps, an increase in skin cancer in vitamin D-starved locals).

But Dr. Catherine Karr, a prof and pediatrician with the University of Washington School of Medicine and School of Public Health, and Elizabeth Jackson, a doctoral candidate with the UW’s Department of Sociology, challenged that notion. At the conference, they presented some disturbing research predicting dramatic increases in the number of Northwesterners likely to be sickened as the planet warms. And those hit hardest are likely to be seniors and low-income families, underscoring the fact that climate change is inherently unfair.

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  • Karr looked at the increased amount of ground-level ozone that’s likely created as temperatures rise, based on climate models. The ozone can harm people’s lungs leading to more asthma attacks, increased lung infections or heart attacks. Or people flat out dying. She projected that in King County, the number of deaths related to the pollution could increase from about 69 in a typical summer in the past decade to 132 in summers by mid century. In Spokane, those numbers rose from 37 in recent years to 74 by around 2050. Not huge numbers, but these are not areas known for heat-related illness.

    Jackson found that elderly, low-income residents were most at risk from death from hyperthermia as the globe warms. They’re least able to get to cooler locations when an extended heat wave hits and may not have air conditioning at home. Using moderate predictions for warming, the greater Seattle area could expect 101 additional deaths annually by 2025 among people 45 and older. By 2085, that jumped to 280 excess deaths, according to Jackson.

    And the reality could be worse—heat related deaths are likely under reported. “This is probably a serious underestimate,” Jackson said.

    Washington’s city dwellers are at heightened risk because we’re unprepared for prolonged, high heat; lack air conditioning in many buildings; and urban areas create “heat islands” where temperatures rise higher than less developed areas.

    Note that the Environmental Protection Agency at last has joined the party, acknowledging late last week that yes, climate change does come with harmful health effects.

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