Laural Ruggles: The health of our environment impacts our health, too

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Laural Ruggles, who is VP of Marketing and Community Health Improvement at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury. Everyone knows someone with asthma. Or diabetes. Or COPD, heart disease, or another chronic health condition. Who do you know? Your grandson, sister, neighbor or […]

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Laural Ruggles, who is VP of Marketing and Community Health Improvement at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury.

Everyone knows someone with asthma.

Or diabetes. Or COPD, heart disease, or another chronic health condition. Who do you know? Your grandson, sister, neighbor or co-worker? About 67,000 Vermonters have asthma, and more than 55,000 have been diagnosed with diabetes. So chances are you know someone with a chronic health condition.   

People with chronic health conditions are more likely to suffer harmful health effects due to extreme weather events – such as high heat and humidity, high winds or flooding caused by rain storms – and poor outdoor air quality from transportation emissions, industrial pollution, prolonged pollen seasons and wildfires.

The Vermont Department of Health collects data that shows that Vermont is getting “warmer and wetter.” Over the last 50 years, our average temperatures and annual precipitation are increasing: winter starts one week later and spring arrives two weeks earlier.

Watch the weather report – or better yet – just look outside: the hazy skies we saw this fall are from the wildfires thousands of miles away. Back-to-back hurricanes Laura, Marco and Sally on our Gulf Coast may not have changed your day, but Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 left almost a third of the state without electricity, hundreds with flooded homes, and 49 people dead, including six Vermonters. In 2020, the meteorologists at the Fairbanks Museum recorded 15 days of temperatures 90 degrees or over. This is double our average.

I’m not a climate scientist. We don’t need to agree on the cause. But I do know how the quality of your indoor and outdoor environment can impact your health.

The health consequences of poor air quality and extreme weather events include difficulty breathing; worsened cardio-vascular and respiratory disease; heat rashes, heat stroke, heat exhaustion; and diminished mental health and well-being. Flooding can leave behind dangerous mold and mildew and risk for contaminated water illness. Power outages from storms leave people at risk for poor nutrition or food poisoning, and with no way to safely store medications that need refrigeration. Shorter winters and earlier springs allow insects to flourish, resulting in more people at risk for illness carried by ticks and mosquitos.

The people with chronic conditions are not the only ones at risk for these health consequences. People with weakened immune systems due to health conditions such as cancer, older adults, children and infants, pregnant women, low-income people of all ages, those who are homeless or living in poor housing conditions, outdoor workers, racial and ethnic minorities, those socially isolated or living alone, and those with no air conditioning are also at risk.

VTDigger is underwritten by:

These are your family members. Your friends. Your neighbors.

There are things we can do, though. Things to improve the health of both people and the environment.

Like incentives to use clean energy sources that improve outdoor air quality, and transportation projects that make it easy to use our cars less. We can add walking and biking into our daily routines. Energy efficiency such as weatherization programs make it affordable for people to button-up their homes and upgrade heating and ventilation systems. A win-win. 

These programs reduce energy bills, improve indoor temperature control and air quality and reduce humidity and mold, ultimately making it easier for people to breathe and live comfortably in their own homes.

Everyone knows someone with asthma. Think about them when you vote this year. Vote for candidates who support policies and programs that make the environment healthier for all of us.

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