How Climate Change Is Affecting Residents' Health In Miami

Mar 24, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On a rainy day this past week, we went to visit a man named Jorge in a working-class neighborhood of Miami wedged between a highway and industrial warehouses. We walk up to the front door of a dilapidated, peach-colored duplex.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that's not where Jorge lives. He greets us and then leads us around to a shed in the backyard.

(Speaking Spanish).

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) He's saying this is his big mansion.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you talk with people in South Florida about climate change, you hear a lot about the effects of rising sea levels. But something else is happening. The heat itself is making people sicker from a longer allergy season to air quality issues to mosquito-borne illnesses. And the nearly 60 percent of Miami residents who live paycheck to paycheck are most at risk, people like Jorge, who takes us inside his tiny space. Taped up on the wall is a carefully handwritten budget.

(Speaking Spanish).

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. He needs to make $364.08 every week.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're chatting as we sit on a single bed, which is all he has room for along with a microwave on a battered dresser. Jorge is being treated for diabetes and cancer. We're not using his last name to protect his health information. A mosquito flies in through the open door. His shed doesn't have any windows. Holes in the wall are covered up with blue tape. He's been living alone in the U.S. for years, working to send money to his five kids back home in Ecuador.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jorge sells fruit on the street. He says it's hard work. I ask him if he's felt a change in the weather as he works outside.

(Speaking Spanish).

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jorge says the summers in South Florida are hotter than ever. They're unbearable, so he's had to adapt. He runs a small AC at night when it's too hot to sleep, which has been more often in recent years, but he also has to be careful because of the cost. When he works outside, he tries to stay in the shade. He wears long-sleeve shirts to keep the sun off, and he takes a break in the middle of the day.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "When you work in the streets," Jorge says, "you really feel the change."

CHERYL HOLDER: Yes, and I mean it. Good morning, everyone. Hi, doc. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Cheryl Holder is greeting colleagues at a clinic in Liberty City in Miami. Holder teaches medicine at Florida International University, but she also treats a lot of patients like Jorge, people who are poor or uninsured or homeless. She's one of the founders of Florida Clinicians For Climate Action - more about them in a minute. Holder says a few years ago, an older patient came to see her in her clinic.

HOLDER: She needed more asthma medicines, and she just was not as controlled as she had been. And I'm like, what's going on?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Holder noticed that other patients were also having more respiratory ailments. So she reached out to other doctors, and they were seeing the same things too. Holder says doctors like her unlock people's lives by hearing their stories. And the stories she was hearing were all pointing to the same thing. Climate change was leading to a cascade of health problems.

HOLDER: 2016, 2017, 2018 have been the hottest days on record.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And with that heat...

HOLDER: The mango trees are flowering way earlier than it used to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So their asthma can get worse.

HOLDER: And the ragweed season starts so much earlier.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they need to buy more pricey allergy medicine.

HOLDER: You can't breathe when it's hot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a risk of dehydration and kidney disease, and people get angry in the heat.

HOLDER: There's more interpersonal conflicts, more interpersonal violence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's also harder to sleep, which can lead to obesity.

HOLDER: And they just cannot afford the AC.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or the AC is old and moldy.

HOLDER: So it's just a vicious cycle that I find my patients involved in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Florida Clinicians For Climate Action explicitly connects the dots for patients - their symptoms to a changing climate. It was formed at a conference in 2018, where doctors looked at the effects of climate change on health. Holder says patients need to understand what's happening so they can adapt and be prepared for what's coming and for what's already here. Doctors are the trusted intermediaries.

HOLDER: We feel the messenger is crucial. Who else but the physician who we see - who can really translate what it means?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By 2050, for example, experts say almost half the days in the year in Florida will be dangerously hot - 105 degrees or more. And Dr. Holder is very worried.

HOLDER: I hear a lot more about sea level rise and raising the sidewalks and replenishing the beaches. But it's going to be very, very difficult for the poor population. It's - I don't know how they're going to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN FALLING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at Jorge's, he's got a rolling cart loaded with fresh mandarin oranges packed in red mesh sleeves. The rain has picked up, but he's still heading out.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rain or shine, cold or heat, he says, he still has to work in a changing climate that's making this city a harder place to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "STYLIZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.