This Earth Day, we celebrate keeping our planet and our people healthy

Our Climate and Health Section invests in our planet every day

Aerial view of wind turbines and agriculture field

Today, Friday, April 22, is Earth Day, the annual celebration when a billion people work to help our only planet. This year’s theme is “Invest in Our Planet.”

What drives us

How is Washington state investing in the planet?

  • During wildfires, we work with schools and governments to help ensure clean air.
  • Our team focuses on increasing health equity through carbon reduction and climate adaptation.
  • We help our communities be Smoke Ready and protect their health from wildfire smoke.
  • We help farmers ensure waste doesn’t pollute shellfish beds.
  • We track where animals spread diseases, which is changing with the climate.
  • We help get out the word about flooding and other climate change threats.
  • We advise local governments on planning infrastructure that lessens climate change’s impacts.
  • We inform people about the best ways to build climate resilience.
  • We work with university partners to project the impacts of climate change to support planning and decision-making
  • We engage with community groups to promote resilience and climate justice

All of these actions (and more) are made possible because of the Climate and Health Division here at the Department of Health (DOH).

Wildfire response and air quality

Because of climate change, Washington is experiencing an increase in wildfire frequency and intensity, a longer wildfire season, and more days when wildfire smoke impacts our health.

A study of deaths during and immediately after wildfire smoke events in Washington found that across the population, deaths increased by 2% the day after smoke — with a 5% increase in people with underlying respiratory diseases.

The Climate and Health team provides information about the effects of wildfire smoke on health to the public, and recommendations for reducing exposure. We lead the Wildfire Smoke Impacts Advisory Group and collaborate as authors of the Washington Smoke Blog to keep the public and decision-makers informed.

Climate Resilient Cities

We are working with the Department of Commerce and other state agencies on strategies to make our cities more resilient to the impacts of climate change. This includes:

  • Helping a city become more resilient to wildfires and wildfire smoke, and adapt to climate change
  • Addressing “heat islands,” areas with more structures like buildings and roads that absorb and re-emit heat than trees and green spaces that keep spaces cooler
  • Finding ways to get more people walking, riding bikes, and using public transit to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality
  • Studying how changing water patterns affect flooding, drought, and water supply

Extreme weather, drought, and sea-level rise

Shifts in Northwest weather will increase the likelihood of extreme weather events like heat waves, heavy rainfall, flooding, and heat domes (when hot air gets stuck over a specific region), because of weather conditions.

For example, the June 2021 heat dome resulted in over 100 deaths, making it the deadliest weather event since 1910. These events increase the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke and are associated with adverse impacts and even death for some people. In Washington, the frequency of very hot days (above 90° F) is expected to increase by 67% in the next thirty years, even under a scenario of low greenhouse gas emissions.

Changes to Washington’s rainfall and snow patterns will lead to changes in the state’s water systems, increasing the risk of both flooding and drought in some parts of the state. The health impacts of sea level rise will vary by location and community. They may include disruption to drinking water due to saltwater intrusion into groundwater sources of drinking water, king tide (“sunny day”) flooding, interruptions in access to critical services, and in the longer term, loss of home, land, or sense of place.

We are helping people cope with and prevent these changes.

Equity in climate change

DOH’s vision is “Equity and optimal health for all.” We are contributing toward an understanding of how climate change affects those also impacted by racism and oppression. This work is informed by the Cumulative Impact Analysis (CIA) that identified vulnerable communities.

Some of our health equity work includes:

  • Bringing health equity, anti-racism, and environmental justice into the climate conversation at the federal, state, and local government levels.
  • Implementing strategies to ease health impacts of climate change for high-risk groups.
  • Working with communities and state agencies to put community priorities and climate and environmental justice principles into the state’s approach to climate and environmental policy implementation.

Building Climate Resilience

What does it mean to build climate resilience? As a team, we work to expand the capacity of a community to anticipate, plan for the risks, and seize the opportunities associated with environmental and social change brought about by climate change.

Both vulnerability and resilience can coexist in a community. For example, a city or neighborhood may experience high levels of air pollution, but also have a strong local food system and a high-quality community clinic. Improving the underlying health status and determinants of health through community planning is one of the most effective strategies to build climate resilience.

We provide technical assistance to communities, such as mapping, data sharing, best practices, Health Impact Assessments, equity assessments, research, and facilitation to help cities and counties expand their climate resilience. We also work across agencies to support a common language and identify shared goals related to climate change, health, and equity.

Specific work we do to expand climate resilience in communities across the state includes:

  • Participating in local and regional climate planning processes.
  • Bringing local environmental health, planning, and emergency management together in projects and programs.
  • Developing Climate Guidance for cities and counties.
  • Getting resources and information supporting climate resilience and health equity out to communities and other partners through conferences, websites, meetings, research, position papers, and other communication.

Other environmental hazards

We also are active in informing you about hazards where you live and play. We track diseases from animals, including from mosquitoes and that can be passed from ticks. We also help keep people and animals safe from harmful algal blooms, which can happen year round in the waters across our state.

Join us as we continue to invest in our planet — and in the health of everyone in Washington state.

More Information

Information in this blog changes rapidly. Sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles. For more information from the Washington State Department of Health, visit doh.wa.gov.

Questions about COVID-19? Visit our COVID-19 website to learn more about vaccines and booster doses, testing, WA Notify, and more. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.

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