Los Angeles County has been a travel destination point for millions since its founding 165 years ago. The region has experienced unprecedented population growth and attraced new residents from across the country and from numerous nations to comprise the cultural “melting pot” we witness today. Questions arise, however, regarding the relationship between the historic drought the state is currently in and climate change: “Can the county sustain its reputation for growth and prosperity with a dwindling supply of water?”
Climate change, whatever its cause, is said to affect how we breathe, what we eat and what diseases we are exposed to. Because of the magnitude of rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, ozone concentrations and declining air quality, experts within the community of natural sciences contend that global warming may have a significant effect on the quality of life for residents of Los Angeles County. Everything from air pollution, allergens, wildfires, disease carried by insects and food production have become causes of concern for the estimated 10.12 million persons living in the county.
National Public Health Week took place recently and about 1,000 doctors, nurses, researchers and other health professionals from 49 states signed and delivered a letter to President Barack Obama calling on bold action on climate change “The risks climate change poses to public health have been well documented,” they wrote; both Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments endorsed the letter, which continued with dire warnings: “Increased temperatures are spreading tropical diseases to new latitudes. Heat waves will likely cause more deaths across the world. Warmer temperatures and increased prevalence of drought threaten to reduce crop yields and lead to food insecurity and water shortages. And more extreme weather events—coupled with sea-level rise—will threaten low-lying cities globally.”
Obama responded to the scientific plea by relating a story about his oldest daughter, Malia, who had to be rushed to the emergency room with an asthma attack when she was a toddler. He also remembered his days as a student at Occidental College, saying he could feel his “lungs burn” after just five minutes of jogging because of heavy smog that was common in L.A. County 30 years ago.
“So the idea here is that by having doctors, nurses, and public health officials who have come together highlighting the consequences of warmer temperatures, not only can communities start thinking about adapting and planning around those issues, but individual families can also recognize that there is a link here, and collectively we can start doing something about it,” the president said.
Some areas more vulnerable
California, the world’s eighth largest economy, is definitely experiencing climate change. Negative health consequences, many of which may result from higher temperatures and increased smog, have been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to increase the risk of asthma attacks and can play a large role in the health and welfare of both the youngest and oldest persons and also individuals suffering from chronic illness. The CDC in 2013 listed nine cause-and-effect relationships between climate change and health among them:
—Air pollution and the impact of air quality: heat and concentrations of chemicals and methane can increase ground-level ozone, which is associated with decreased lung function, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma.
—Allergens: Warmer air can change pollination time and increase growth in fungi and mold, all of which contributes to the ever-increasing incidence of asthma.
—Wildfires: Wildfires produce compounds that can reduce air quality, meaning exposure to carcinogens can increase pulmonary events that lead to hospitalizations.
—Precipitation extremes: Flash floods account for roughly 100 deaths per year as well as a number of waterborne diseases once the floodwaters recede.
—Diseases carried by insects: climate change affects populations of mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Los Angeles County has experienced outbreaks of Lyme Disease and West Nile Fever, which has been traced back to climate change, says county health officials.
—Food production: The quality and quantity of food could be affected dramatically by climate change, which would have an obvious effect on public health.
In 2012, the California Environmental Health Tracking Program released a report indicating that 46 percent of African Americans and 36 percent of Latinos reside in the two highest “vulnerability” regions in Los Angeles County, compared to 30 percent of Whites. A specific area south of the 10 Freeway and slightly north of the 405 Freeway (primarily South Los Angeles including the communities of Lynwood, Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate, Watts/Willowbrook and Compton) find residents at the highest risk of health damage resulting from climate change. The second vulnerability category has to do with income. The aforementioned communities reportedly have the county’s lowest per-capita income standard. This finding, the report revealed, may prevent residents from moving to less environmentally caustic and/or carcinogenic-free neighborhoods which, reportedly, have more green spaces for recreation, less pollution from vehicles (specifically trucks traveling north from Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors) and may offer more medical facilities to monitor health concerns.
Lingering effects of drought
“African Americans and Latinos are exposed to greater climate change risks than Whites,” the report stated. In addition, lower income households are subjected to “… greater climate change risks” than wealthier households. Los Angeles County reportedly represents 27 percent of the state’s residents and 40 percent of the more than 12 million Californians who were deemed by the health tracking study as “highly vulnerable” to climate-related disasters.
Respiratory illnesses, water quality and mosquito- and rodent-related diseases will worsen across Los Angeles County in the next few decades because of climate change. This and other findings were released in August 2014 by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Its director, physician Dr. Johnathan Fielding, said climate change is arguably the biggest health threat of the 21st century.
“We are already experiencing one of the worst droughts in history, and it is expected that conditions will worsen over time,” Fielding said. “We have to take action now in order to lessen the effects of climate change that we will experience in Los Angeles County.”
Some places like the northern portions of the San Fernando Valley and the entirety of the Antelope Valley, the report illustrated, may see up to 25 straight days of 95 degree or higher temperatures. So far, the drought has produced more West Nile virus-infected mosquitos than in any time during the past five years. County vector officials said this is because insects and birds are in closer proximity to residential communities when (fresh) water resources decline.
In 2006, the state assembly adopted AB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, in an effort to address the effects of climate change. AB32 established a statewide goal to achieve 1990 greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) levels by 2020. Los Angeles County is preparing its own Community Climate Action Plan (CCAP) to mitigate and avoid GHG emissions associated with community activities in the unincorporated regions. This plan will reportedly address emissions from building energy, land use and transportation, water consumption and waste generation. The measures and actions outlined in the CCAP were imposed as a way to tie together the County’s existing climate change initiatives and could provide a blueprint for a more sustainable future.
Antelope Valley and GHG emissions
Lancaster is well underway with its “Net Zero” campaign, particularly in the areas of new home and business construction in an effort to reduce GHG emissions. The plan is said to result in structures that produce “zero energy consumption” meaning the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on site. Future single-family homes in Lancaster, for instance, will reportedly not increase the amount of GHG emissions released into the atmosphere.
The World Bank in 2013 released a report that may contain some sobering news for residents of California’s High Desert. The report revealed that if GHG emissions are not reduced, locales including the Antelope Valley, Morongo Basin and Barstow could experience regular daytime temperatures similar to that of the Coachella Valley (110 degrees) for much longer periods of time. Temperatures could conceivably rise 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit and push the High Desert into the range now seen in Furnace Creek in Death Valley which can average summer daytime temperatures of 120 degrees. The report said that a wide swath of California—from Desert Hot Springs to Calexico—could become essentially inhabitable for people without sufficient income for high electric bills, namely the cost of continuous air conditioning.
The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability released in 2012 a study that suggested that coastal cities like Santa Monica and Malibu are expected to warm another three to four degrees by 2050, while urban areas like Downtown Los Angeles will also warm an additional four to five degrees during that time span. Yet another study, this one published in 2013 by the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability (LARC) has suggested that wildfires will remain a growing threat to Los Angeles County with most models predicting that “… warming will cause more frequent and larger fires by the end of the century.”
Sea levels in coastal areas are expected to rise anywhere from five to 24 inches by 2050, according to the National Resource Council. The higher tide may lead, according to the study, to higher storm surges and waves resulting in more extensive flooding. Two power plants, two wastewater treatment plants and the Port of Los Angeles may be affected by this predicted change in sea level.
The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, in partnership with the LARC, has conducted several studies from 2005-2012 that suggested that if GHG emissions continue to increase globally, climate change could impact Los Angeles County in a myriad of ways including:
—Increasing temperatures. The number of “heat days” (temperatures surpassing 95 degrees) may triple in coastal areas, while the Antelope, San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys will see an almost quadruple increase in the average daytime temperature.
—Decreased snowfall. The mountains could see a 42-percent reduction in annual snowfall by 2050. Winter snowpack can be expected to melt more than two weeks earlier as a result of rising temperatures.
—Extreme weather. Climate change may increase the frequency, intensity and duration of so-called “extreme” weather events such as rain storms. More erratic storms during the winter months could also affect water flows in streams and rivers and cause greater flooding.
A look at instances of respiratory disease may sound a cautionary tale as it relates to climate change. Los Angeles County already suffers from some of the nation’s worst air pollution; a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report from 2013 revealed that county residents are experiencing the driest years since record keeping began in 1877. The report indicated that climate change plays a role in exacerbating respiratory disease because hotter temperatures are said to speed up the chemical reactions that create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog. Higher levels of ground-level ozone is linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart attack and premature death.
The NOAA study also revealed that outdoor workers (those in agriculture, construction, firefighting, delivery and service work) could be “particularly at risk” from heat-related illness. Deadly heat waves that hit California in 2006 took the lives of about 650 persons and contributed to in excess of 16,000 emergency room visits, according to the study.
Danger of West Nile virus
Water quality may also be affected by climate change. The NOAA study revealed that not only can the county be affected by a lack of fresh water, but the quality of the water may become tainted. Apparently, pollutants already existing in the water supply may become more concentrated in smaller bodies of water, thereby increasing the risk of water-borne illnesses like diarrheal diseases. Also, vector-borne diseases are reportedly increasing throughout the county. The Asian tiger mosquito was responsible for outbreaks of Denge fever in Florida, Hawaii and in Texas and last year was identified in the San Gabriel Valley. This and other species of mosquitos, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, reportedly feed more frequently and breed more rapidly in warmer weather. The Asian tiger mosquito and other species of mosquitos can carry West Nile Virus, such as the case in 2013 when the virus contributed to nine deaths and 165 infections throughout the county. California last year saw 801 persons who tested positive for West Nile virus—close to the record 880 cases a decade ago—with 31 persons dying from the disease.