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NH lawmakers may reestablish a climate and health protection program – without any state funding

Doctor's office - NHPR file photo
Doctor's office - NHPR file photo

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

From 2013 to 2022, New Hampshire had a Climate and Health Program housed within the Department of Health and Human Services. But when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention passed over the state for funding in its latest grant cycle, the program ceased.

Lawmakers are now seeking to revive it – but without any dedicated dollars.

On Thursday, the Senate is slated to vote on Senate Bill 496, which would direct DHHS to reestablish a climate and health protection program in response to threats associated with a changing environment. But an amendment approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last month would ensure that no state general funds would be used to support the program. Rather, it would be “contingent on the availability of sufficient funding from non-state sources.”

In lieu of state funding, DHHS would have to seek out and apply for grants and federal dollars, as well as accept donations.

The bill, sponsored by Amherst Democrat Sen. Shannon Chandley, is listed on Thursday’s Senate consent calendar alongside its amendment with a unanimous recommendation of “ought to pass.”

As proposed, the program would be tasked with collecting and analyzing data on high heat index days; illnesses related to ticks, mosquitoes, and other climate-sensitive vectors; torrential rainfall and rising sea levels resulting in flooding and erosion; intense storms causing direct trauma, power outages, and disruption of health care services; air quality concerns; and longer and more intense pollen seasons.

Long-term planning and strategy implementation, as well as education and resources for residents, would be duties of the program, as well.

Matthew Cahillane managed the state’s climate and health program for the nine years it was up and running with approximately $200,000 in annual CDC support. He testified before lawmakers that they developed an expert team, built partnerships with state agencies and universities, launched five community adaptation programs, and educated workers and emergency planners.

Some of the program’s past work includes heat stress and elders in the Upper Valley, ticks and youth in the Lakes Region, urban heat stress in the greater Nashua area, oyster testing in Great Bay for Vibrio bacteria, and a study with Plymouth State University on weather and injury.

If the state’s climate and health program was revitalized, Cahillane said, it could improve data collection on hazards such as flooding and pollen, probe impacts on health care settings outside of emergency rooms, and interpret the dozens of climate and health studies released each year to prioritize relevant topics for New Hampshire decision makers.

“I believe the state needs a climate and health program that will provide both the legislative and executive branches with clear, concise, evidence-based information that will allow you to make sound decisions on policy resources and public health,” he said.

Michele Roberge, chief of public health protection at DHHS, said prior funding from the CDC’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative lasted for two grant cycles between 2013 and 2022. The funding ceased when New Hampshire wasn’t chosen in the most recent competitive application process, as the federal agency appeared to select Western states due to wildfires and Southern states due to flooding, she said.

Because the latest grant cycle was in 2021, it will be about two years before New Hampshire could reapply.

If the Legislature directed DHHS to reestablish the program, Roberge said, the agency would need funding to support it – likely $157,000 in fiscal year 2025, $172,000 in 2026, and $176,000 in 2027.

Those supporting the bill at its public hearing in late January included the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester and New Hampshire Healthcare Workers for Climate Action.

A retired cardiologist from Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, Robert Dewey said he repeatedly witnessed how his patients would become unstable when exposed to even low levels of air pollutants, especially ozone and particulate matter.

Last summer, on several different days, New Hampshire health officials issued air quality warnings as a result of unprecedented wildfires that raged in Canada. The smoke – a mixture of air pollutants produced when wood and other organic materials burn – prompted public advisories for “sensitive individuals” to take precaution by limiting prolonged outdoor exertion.

Dewey cited a 2018 report from the Department of Environmental Services stating particulate matter caused 1,300 premature deaths annually and more than 500,000 acute respiratory illnesses in New Hampshire.

“Climate change is increasing and these impacts are only going to get worse,” he said. “We clearly need to study these so we can respond in the most efficient manner. “

Robert Feder, a psychiatrist from Hollis who previously served as president of the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society, emphasized “health” means mental health, too. He outlined the documented impacts of extensive heat, storms, flooding, and wildfires on the psyches of those who experience them.

“Multiple studies have shown that the incidences of major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and suicides all increase by two to three times their baseline levels in the survivors of significant climate events,” Feder said, noting a climate and health protection program should also aim to bolster the psychological resilience of at-risk populations in the state.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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