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Health & Prevention Report: What Drought Means For Public Health In Montezuma County

(Courtesy of Juanita Constible)
Juanita Constible works for the National Resource Defence Council.

Temperatures in Colorado are warming faster than the national average, according to researchers. Experts say that the current dry spell is a symptom of that temperature increase. Juanita Constible works for the Natural Resource Defence Council. She spoke with Public Health reporter Tay Glass about how folks can stay safe during this “mega drought.” 

GLASS: Juanita Constible, thank you so much for being here with us. 

CONSTIBLE: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to have this chance. 

GLASS: Juanita, Colorado is one of the fastest warming states in the nation with a temperature increase of about 2.9 degrees between 1970 and 2018. But 2.9 degrees from day to day doesn't sound like much. Can you talk about what that means for folks here in Montezuma County?

CONSTIBLE: Sure, so the temperature increase in Montezuma county is actually even a little bit higher than that. The other thing is the annual temperature change that you talked about is winter, summer, it's all the seasons. 

GLASS: I'm wondering what are the health effects of drought and extreme weather conditions for somebody living in this quote unquote, mega drought?

CONSTIBLE: Droughts are what are called creeping disasters, it's hard to figure out when they start and end, they tend to last for a really long time. And often their health and economic impacts are delayed and accumulate really slowly. There are a huge range of possible outcomes. So one thing that is pretty common with drought is decreased air quality. Well, the dust itself can harm our lungs just by just the particles associated with all that loose dirt. Dust can also carry heavy metals, can carry fungal infections, bacterial infections. 

GLASS: I wonder should people be concerned about running out of water, like having nothing come out of the tap?

CONSTIBLE: Our water system broadly in the US is pretty ready for nothing coming out of the tap, but they've got a lot of safeguards in place. The communities that should be a little more concerned are the ones that are on wells, especially if the wells are in an area where the groundwater is being rapidly depleted for other purposes. Even if there’s enough water, there's a big question of what the quality of that water will be. So when you have a drought situation, and water is getting concentrated, as it concentrates, there's potentially more pollutants or dust or wildfire smoke in the water. I've seen reports of people complaining that their city water tastes like wildfire smoke

GLASS: Can you tell me about the mental health effects of drought? 

CONSTIBLE: So when the water goes away, that can be a big hit, not only to being able to meet basic needs, like food and medical bills and other economic needs, but it can also affect things like self worth, and just the sense of being able to supply the basics to your family. We've seen an increase in suicides in some drought stricken communities around the world. And one of the concerns in the US is that we don't have a good handle yet on which communities are most vulnerable, and how to help them.

GLASS: Well, that was actually going to be my next question. What can people do to protect themselves against the physical health effects of drought as well as the mental health effects?

CONSTIBLE: Yeah, so one of the things that really needs to happen is planning for the droughts of the future, not the droughts of the past. This is less about what individuals can do and more about what they should be demanding from their decision makers. Right now about 2% of the Colorado state budget goes towards the department of public health and the environment. So that's, that's the department of the big charge. So listeners should be asking their local and state health departments and their representatives to say, “Hey, what are you doing to make sure that our public health system and that our water system is ready for climate change?”

GLASS: You mentioned public health and their role in helping individuals. I wonder what people can do to help the drought situation and conserve water for the broader public? 

CONSTIBLE: Making sure that your toilets aren't leaking, or that you, if you have a hose connected to the outside of your house, that it's got a good seal. Things like washing a full load of laundry, I mean, these are all tips that I think people have heard before. And it's a matter of making them a regular part of how you go about your day so that you don't have to think about it every single time. Just turning it into a habit.And I would actually argue that if you're feeling really overwhelmed by all the awful news about climate change, taking these small concrete steps, in addition to calling for change at the political level, can help you feel more in control of a situation that is global in nature.

GLASS: That's really good advice. Juanita Constible, thank you so much for your time. 

CONSTIBLE: Thank you so much for having me. It's been great to be here.

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