Climate change adversely affecting Virginians’ health, study says

Flooding in Portsmouth, Va., after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. (Steve Earley /AP)

By Patricia Sullivan

April 17,2018

The klaxon sound of a government alert went off on cellphones all over Northern Virginia at 3:35 a.m. Monday; the National Weather Service had issued a flash-flood warning for the region. Hours later, the state climatologist fielded phone calls about tornado watches and warnings in the central part of the state.

Such warnings may become more frequent in the future, and they may have major implications for human health, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a 48-year-old environmental organization.

The study, “Climate Change and Health in Virginia,” warns that as heat waves increase, the risk of heat-related illnesses and deaths in Virginia will grow. Coastal flooding, which already threatens Norfolk and the Hampton Roads area, is likely to worsen as sea levels rise, potentially impeding emergency medical services. Allergy season is starting earlier and lasting longer, and asthma attacks are increasing in the southeastern United States.

“Climate change is already affecting the health of Virginians, and it’s getting worse,” said Juanita Constible, the lead author of the NRDC report. “Extreme events are where we’re more likely to see circumstances overwhelm officials’ ability to respond.”

The NRDC is not alone in spotting the risk. The National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report by more than 300 experts, also cited sea-level rise, increased temperatures and greater competition for water in its 2014 look at the southeastern United States. (The 2018 report will be released late this year.) 

Philip J. Stenger, the state climatologist and director of the climatology office at the University of Virginia, said the NRDC report “brings up a lot of important points. We’re not going to simply warm up everywhere although temperatures are rising. . . . The idea that we could be facing more intense allergy seasons is likely. . . . Overall, these are issues that should be looked at.”

The study points out that Virginia’s summer temperatures have risen one degree Fahrenheit since 1895, raising the risk of death from the heat by about 2.5 percent. Those most affected are often the most vulnerable: the elderly, children and people with chronic illnesses.

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