The work of the MGH Institute’s Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health is more important than ever as the effects of global warming lead to adverse health consequences in the US and globally.. With Earth Month recognized in April, the Center’s director, Dr. Patrice Nicholas, talks about its role both on campus and in the community.

Earth Day was celebrated on Monday, where people are asked to reflect on their relationship with the Earth. Can you share your thoughts on where things stand on climate issues today?

PN: Well, everyone's affected by changes in the weather and the climate. For example, in the Northeast, we have much rainier winters—less snow and rainier spring seasons now. And in the summer, heat exposure and air pollution are major challenges. For example, children and adults with asthma are impacted by air pollution. Students at the Harvard-Kent Elementary School in Charlestown are disproportionately impacted with the traffic from the Tobin bridge and the nearby Route 93 highway. And because the pollen growth seasons are longer, people who never had seasonal allergies now have them. And there’s also more vector-borne illnesses. For example, Lyme disease in the Northeast has increased, and we know wildfire exposure is a major challenge in the West. Even in Nova Scotia and other provinces of Canada, there were devastating wildfires that affected air quality here. And we also know that hurricanes are becoming much more extreme in the wind velocity, which then causes more damage and disproportionally affects low-income populations, people of color, and elders and children in particular.

You’re talking about climate justice issues, correct?

PN: Yes. Climate justice is incredibly important because those who least contribute to climate change are those who are most affected by it. In the United States, there's higher ambient heat when there's asphalt and concrete in cities versus if you live in a town with trees and other land cover so that’s a big problem. 

There was a study by Harvard economist Jisung Park that followed Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) scores in school children and found a causal effect to poorer scores. Children who are in brick schools without air conditioning, often in the inner cities, are disproportionately impacted by heat and that’s an example of climate injustice. But Boston Mayor Michelle Wu just hired a Chief Climate Officer to address many of these issues, so that is very encouraging. 

What things are happening here on the IHP campus?

PN: For starters, [Sustainability Coordinator] Tyler Leary is amazing. She sits on the Center’s steering committee and she consistently engages our IHP community with a special emphasis on sustainability initiatives, TV messages, and climate change-related events around campus that really makes a big impact. 

And the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly important on what we teach our students. Here’s an example: Pregnant women who are affected by poor air quality and high ambient heat experience preterm birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, and cardiac anomalies in the fetuses. These things are not well known by a lot of healthcare practitioners so it’s incredibly important that we educate future healthcare providers as well as those who are practicing now.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice program has embedded climate change knowledge in our population health content, and we share knowledge in the physician assistant studies program. There’s a growing awareness among students about the impacts on health from climate change. And that's part of the reason we shifted our annual symposium next month to educate our own health professions students and the local community. This will enhance our IHP curricular knowledge and clinical content for the Institute faculty and students. School of Healthcare Leadership dean Rosemary Caron, who has a public health background, sits on our climate change steering committee and she wants to advance the SHL’s focus on addressing climate change. And it’s also being incorporated in the rehabilitation sciences programs. Sarah McKinnon, who leads the post-professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, focuses on disabilities and how climate change, particularly heat stress, is important for occupational therapists as well as physical therapists to consider.

How is the Center making an impact outside the IHP community?

PN: We have a partnership with the Mass General Hospital Center for the Environment and Health, and also with the Maxwell and Eleanor Blum Patient and Family Learning Center at MGH, where we co-host monthly webinars for patients and families that are very well attended. Suellen Breakey, associate director of the Climate Center, Sarah McKinnon, and I have presented on many monthly webinars. One recent webinar focused on people with disabilities and a lens on occupational therapy, nursing, and the health professions. Plus, Suellen, myself, and others published a paper in the Milbank Quarterly on the roles of health professionals across all the health professions in addressing climate change, health consequences, and sustainability.

It sounds like faculty who are part of the Center are creating a lot of scholarship.

PN: Yes, quite a bit. Some of our faculty colleagues have written case studies on the effects of heat stress and air pollution on pregnant individuals. Another paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners focused on occupational heat stress that featured the impacts on construction workers—those covered by OSHA regulations and a migrant agricultural worker without OSHA protection; this demonstrated the stark differences in how people are protected from heat stress and heat stroke. 

What’s next for the Center?

PN: I think there are lot of opportunities to be awarded funding and grants, such as the one School of Nursing colleagues Pat Reidy and Kathy Sabo received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Service Administration. This grant supports education of our students and the community in Chelsea with a mobile van working with residents to address the adverse health consequences of climate change. There are also significant opportunities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across all of the Institutes and Centers. There are also organizations including the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation, both of which award funding on climate change issues. Achieving more funding including significant research funding would be incredibly meaningful for the Center’s future.

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