Climate City: WNC Researchers Delve Into Climate Change & Health

Feb 17, 2020

Climate change is a complicated topic, especially when you start to unpack the impact on human health.   In this installment of BPR's Climate City series,  Helen Chickering  introduces us to two WNC researchers who are collaborating to tackle that challenge. 

Jennifer Runkle is an environmental epidemiologist with the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies in Asheville.

“I’m exactly the same as a public health epidemiologist, says Runkle.”  ‘It's just my focus area isn't necessarily on chronic disease or HIV or cancer. We're focused on looking at how human’s interaction with their environment impacts their health.”

Much of Runkle’s work focuses on examining risk factors in communities in Western North Carolina and involves Maggie Sugg. She’s an assistant professor in the department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and a medical geographer.

Maggie Sugg Ph.D, Assistant Professor in the department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and a medical geographer.
Credit appstate.edu

“Which is something that you often don't hear about. But what I really do is I look at, spatial temporal patterns of diseases and look at how these patterns are related to other factors like environmental, social, economic or climatic factors. I have a background in climatology too, so I really liked to look at this intersection of climate and health. I use a lot of mapping and spatial techniques to look at this intersection. 

Sugg’s work includes research into heat related illness in North Carolina. The two have collaborated on a number of studies, including an emerging area of research looking at ways in which temperature influences mental health.  Here’s Jennifer Runkle.  

What are those sensitivities in anxiety, depression, or even suicide that are influenced by temperature extremes,” says Runkle.  “And so there are a handful of us that are actually looking into this phenomenon, but there's some really important mechanisms happening kind of under the skin that would influence our susceptibility to temperature.” 

The two are also members of the newly formed Western North Carolina Health and Climate Working Group.  Made up of local public health leaders, practitioners, climate scientists and other experts, the group is working to help engage clinicians and the public health community in the region around the topic of climate change and health.

“What do they need to know, what do they not know and where to we go from here,” says Runckle, “Climate changes (our)human exposure to extreme heat, flooding and other extreme weather events as well as changes in tick and mosquito, food and waterborne illness. These are some of the issues we are looking at in the here and now.   I'll say,  when you think about how climate impacts health, we have to understand that climate change is really a risk multiplier, whereby those existing health disparities or social stressors like racism, poverty, are working to interact with environmental stressors (like urbanization, declines in urban tree canopy).

And that interaction makes people more susceptible to the health effects of climate change.  Runkle and Sugg are excited about the work the group has set out to do and say it’s a perfect and rewarding fit for their collaborative research.

“So, I see the group is a way to  provide evidence-based solutions to some of our climate health problems and to work with actual practitioners who are, who are trying to make these impacts in our area,“ says Sugg. “So it's an interesting, it's a great way for me as the academic to you know, disseminate my research and to make a meaningful contribution to my community.”

Runkle agrees.

“I think for public health in general, the climate crisis presents a unique opportunity for us to rally around and provide innovative solutions that are informed from bottom up  - engaging residents, state officials,” she says.  “I think technology is going to play a part but there is something unique about this issue and this specific time that I think we're going to surprise the world with. I think there's a tremendous amount of hope  in the face of this climate crisis because people are getting engaged and are creatively thinking outside of the box.”

BPR is following the research by Jennifer Runkle and Maggie Sugg along with the WNC Climate and Health Working Group.  Stay tuned!

You can learn more about the impacts of climate change on health and meet the two climate health researchers this Thursday, February 20.  The Asheville Museum of Science February Pub  will explore the ways in which climate change and weather are already impacting our nation’s health and what health impacts residents in WNC might expect in the future. The event is free and will be held at The Collider in downtown Asheville.

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