The record-setting Superstorm Sandy that made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, resulted in both short- and long-term health hazards for residents, some far from obvious. When the floodwaters finally drained, they left potentially contaminated sludge, which dried to an asthma-aggravating powder and led to toxic blooms of mold. Anxiety and depression soared, and hospitals reported rising numbers of patients with intestinal issues, diabetic emergencies and heart failure.
Jeanne Herb, a climate expert who heads the Environmental Analysis and Communications Group at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said racial, economic, environmental and health disparities have since been magnified by the impacts of climate change.
“One thing that has become clear in the last ten years, since Sandy, is that changing climate conditions exacerbate underlying health inequities,” she said.
COVID-19 — which took an outsize toll on people of color in New Jersey and nationwide — further exposed these gaps, Herb said. Black and Hispanic people were more likely to be exposed and two or three times more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19 than white Americans. In an op-ed she and a colleague published in July 2020, Herb detailed how Black and Hispanic New Jerseyans are more vulnerable than their white neighbors, being more likely to die from common diseases, less likely to graduate high school and with roughly half the annual earnings. “The same populations suffering from health inequities are the same populations getting hammered by COVID and climate change,” she said.
Herb, with Rutgers, said the push to “bounce back” from disaster can be near impossible for some vulnerable residents. Some families whose homes are flooded and without power may be able to purchase a generator, hire a professional to eradicate mold and telecommute during the clean-up process, she said, even if they must dip into savings or charge it to credit. But those living paycheck to paycheck in a basement apartment may be forced to eat the food going bad in their refrigerator and clean up the mess themselves, she said, unable to get to an hourly-wage job that provides their only income. “These are all the social determinants of health that we know cause inequities and they just get exacerbated by climate change,” she said.
The good news, Herb said, is that improving climate resilience for vulnerable populations — by expanding open space in flood zones and creating safer affordable housing — will strengthen families’ ability to respond in many ways. This was the focus of a 2019 session convened by the New Jersey Climate Change Alliance and the New Jersey Society for Public Health Education, which led to a white paper that highlighted strategies for success, including act quickly, address root causes, engage local communities and expand the role of the state’s beleaguered public health system. “By addressing climate change we can contribute to the development of healthy communities,” Herb said.
The DEP’s September report also stresses the connection between climate change impacts and mental health issues, which has led to new terminology like “ecoanxiety” and “ecoguilt.” The issue is particularly acute for survivors and first responders, a group that has recently experienced significant stress through the COVID-19 pandemic.