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Hey, Congress, climate change is a health care crisis. Treat it like one | Opinion

Increased levels of ozone are linked to a multitude of health issues

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

By Kenneth Oja

As a nurse, I am sounding the alarm on climate change as an urgent public health crisis and calling on Congress to take bold action to lessen the effects of climate change that are negatively impacting our health. They have the tools in front of them, right now, to begin the urgent process of reversing global warming.

Climate change has become a health care crisis akin to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since early 2020, I’ve seen firsthand the hundreds of patients who have suffered or died from COVID-19. People unable to breathe without assistance. People stuck inside, begging to see their families, and hoping for a cure. It’s difficult to see.

But, unlike COVID-19, there are no vaccines to protect us from the equally devastating effects of climate change. Protection against climate change involves strategies for using clean energy, limiting power plant pollution, and expanding carbon markets. It’s time to fight climate change so we can all start leading happier and healthier lives.
I live in Colorado. And  according to the Colorado Health Institute, less than half of Coloradans believe their health is in jeopardy due to climate change even though Denver, Aurora and Fort Collins are in the top 20 most ozone-polluted cities in the United States.

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Despite these beliefs among Colorado residents, increased levels of ozone are linked to a multitude of health issues, including difficulty breathing, inflamed or damaged airways, increased likelihood of respiratory infections, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Ozone can also aggravate existing health conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Trust me, as a nurse, I have seen my fair share of patients with respiratory diseases. It is extremely difficult to watch as a person is having difficulty breathing or cannot breathe without assistance.

Our lawmakers need to do the right thing and ensure the passage of the legislation to enact the Build Back Better framework.

Also concerning is that nearly 250,000 Coloradans live within half a mile of active oil and gas wells, exposing them to increased benzenes and alkanes. These residents have reported increased eyes/nose/throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and serious respiratory problems. In addition, research has shown that people who live near oil and gas wells are also more likely to experience neurological, hematological and developmental issues.

Unfortunately, race is the number one indicator of whether a person lives near toxic waste and people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide than white people. Blacks are three times more likely to die from air pollution than whites.

Those most affected by climate change are low-income, black, and indigenous communities. Children in these communities are particularly vulnerable to changes in air quality. In Colorado, Denver’s historically redlined communities are 12 degrees hotter than nearby neighborhoods causing higher rates of heat exhaustion, nausea, and death. This is unacceptable.

As with the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need to start spending more time inside and our older and/or health-compromised neighbors, friends, and families will need to rely on oxygen tanks to breathe if we don’t do something about climate change. Real lives are being negatively affected by climate change.

This includes our average, hardworking Coloradans who won’t be able to enjoy all of the wonderful outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer. Whether they know it or not, Coloradans, if they aren’t already, will suffer from health problems due to climate change. This will continue until we work to stop the effects of climate change.

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The Build Back Better framework will focus on mitigating climate change while also creating good-paying jobs for millions of Americans. It will support middle class families as they make the critical transition to clean energy use in their homes and small businesses. It will begin the critical processes of reclaiming our coastlines and forests. And it will invest in these projects locally where economic benefit will be felt the most.

Time is running out. Investing in the fight against climate change is good for the economy, the health of Coloradans, and the right thing to do. Our lawmakers need to do the right thing and  ensure the passage of the legislation to enact the Build Back Better framework. The health of all of us depends on it.

Kenneth Oja is an assistant professor of nursing and nurse research scientist in Colorado who assists nurses in conducting research to improve nursing practice and patient outcomes. He is an advocate with Healthy Air and Water Colorado. He wrote this piece for Colorado Newsline, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared

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