While climate change is a matter of ongoing discussion between scientists and politicians on a national level, San Luis Obispo County is taking steps to ensure that the community is better informed about the issue and what can be done to reduce its impacts.
With a new pilot program prompted at the request of the California Department of Public Health, SLO County’s effort is still in its infancy. Kathleen Karle, the division manager of health promotion for the County Public Health Department, began spearheading what’s now known as “Outside In SLO” in August 2014. Currently, the focus is still centered on teaching as many people as possible about the causes and effects of climate change—particularly the various health and safety ramifications.
“A lot of people see climate change as a polar bear issue,” Karle said. “And it is, but it’s also a public health issue, and it’s one of the significant threats that our nation faces in terms of water pollution, air quality, droughts, wildfires, and storms.”
Karle and her associates at Outside In have partnered with other county programs—like SLO County Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a nutrition program aimed at helping low-income mothers and young children eat well and stay healthy—to spread their messages. WIC offers one-on-one or group classes that explore a different topic each month. In January, for example, classes focused on issues of climate change and how WIC clients can take steps to mitigate the causes.
According to Wendy Fertschneider, a public health nutritionist for WIC, the classes center on simple, relatively easy behavioral changes that clients can make, such as switching to locally grown food and breastfeeding, both of which use less energy and create less waste than the alternatives. And while the focus for its upcoming classes doesn’t deal directly with climate change, Fertschneider said the staff is becoming more aware of the issue, and she thinks the new mindset could lead to more topics in the coming months.
Outside In SLO is not only a pilot program locally; it’s the only program of its kind in the state. In August, state health department officials are scheduled to come assess it in order to determine whether it’s successfully met its goals, and whether it’s worth rolling out to other counties.
Before the program’s implementation, Karle said officials used a focus group, which will also be the same tool officials use to determine whether the program led to any measurable lifestyle changes.
“The goal is to educate people about the health impacts of climate change,” Karle said. “But also, from a state perspective, to demonstrate that it doesn’t take a huge financial commitment to do so. I also try to stress that this is not a political issue, it’s a health issue, and the science is solidly behind our efforts.”
As California enters its fourth year of drought, some of the consequences are beginning to take shape. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the potential for the spread of waterborne diseases becomes higher as water tables drop increasingly lower. Less water in the water table results in a higher concentration of pollutants, which makes it more difficult for water systems to purify themselves. Such an environment can lead to increases in waterborne diseases, such as norovirus, salmonellosis, and E. coli, all of which are associated with various forms of gastrointestinal distress.
In addition, Karle said that vector-born diseases—diseases caused by insects and rats—are likely to increase in more temperate climates. She said that insects in particular are a major contributor of diseases in California, specifically the West Nile virus and dengue fever, both of which are spread by mosquitoes. But Karle seems optimistic that Outside In SLO will educate people, and help guide them toward more positive lifestyle changes.
“Personally I hope to get larger awareness and buy-in from the community,” Karle said. “Thus far, we have gotten great feedback when we are out doing presentations. For example, I presented to all of our public health nurses, and one called me several weeks later to tell me that as a result, she got out her bike, tuned it up, and stopped driving her car on weekends. No one is naïve enough to believe that this will solve all of our problems, but it’s the collective effort of all of us that will matter.”
Intern Adriana Catanzarite can be reached via Executive Editor Ryan Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.