Climate Change, Severe Weather and Toxic Exposure

(By Megan Dunn, Healthy People and Communities Program Director)


When you see severe environmental strains of one sort or another on cultures, on civilizations, on nations, the byproducts of that are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. If the current projections, the current trend lines on a warming planet continue, it is certainly going to be enormously disruptive worldwide.” –President Barack Obama

With hurricanes, fires and floods making the news, many people are asking whether climate change is contributing to catastrophic storms, and if such storms create increased exposure to pests or pesticides.

My family, along with other Washington and Oregon residents, spent several weeks this summer dealing with unhealthy, smoke filled air, ash falling from nearby fires and a record number of days without rainfall. My sister in Florida just dealt with the largest hurricane to ever hit the state. In Texas, officials are managing a hurricane response with severe flooding and now a massive mosquito outbreak. 

Climate Change = More Severe Storms and Impacts

Weather is different than climate change. Weather is on a shorter timeline–the day to day fluctuations of temperature, precipitation and wind patterns. Climate change is a study of long term and continual changes in the atmosphere (see NASA’s explanation here). The impact of Harvey may not have been due to climate change alone, but the size of the storm was consistent with expert predictions that climate change will bring increasingly larger and more severe hurricanes. This, in turn, exacerbates other concerns. For instance, as a result of hurricane Harvey flooding:

  • Residents and businesses were exposed to highly contaminated flood waters from Superfund sites.[1]

  • There were reports of floating colonies of red ants and an outbreak of mosquitos due to the standing water.

  • In response to mosquitos, the state of Texas sprayed over 6.39 million acres [2] with an insecticide and recommended people use repellents and take other precautions.

Texas’s use of harmful insecticides following the mosquito outbreak is alarming. Changing climate and weather patterns have been found to cause pest migrations and new or emerging pests, which can derail successful pest management, and in some cases can increase the use of pesticides. Success of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a long-term pest management policy adopted by many schools and municipalities, depends on prevention. Pest identification and understanding pest lifecycles, regular monitoring, thresholds and action levels are fundamental to preventing pests and therefore the need to use pesticides. An unknown pest to a new area can negatively impact successful pest management plans and lead to chemical pesticide use for emergency situations. 

Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation and Protection

Mitigation solutions to reduce carbon emissions can also result in a decrease in pesticide use and exposure and should be an equitable option for everyone. Solutions include organic and sustainable farming practices that reduce reliance on petroleum-based products, including pesticides. A new study from Northeastern University and nonprofit research organization The Organic Center found organic farming sequesters (or stores) carbon more than conventional farming methods, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Organic farms were found to have 26% more long-term carbon storage potential than conventional farms.[3]

Local, municipal solutions include policies to increase energy efficiency, which can result in standards and building improvements that exclude and prevent pests. Other local policy changes are incentivizing and promoting organic food procurement and certified sustainable landscaping.

Climate Justice

It is important to remember the disparate impact of climate change and severe weather on vulnerable populations. In Florida, farm workers have been dramatically impacted by the effects of hurricane Irma; some have lost their homes, belongings and future work due to the devastation of crops and orchards. For farm workers living in impoverished communities and sub-standard housing, exposure to toxic chemicals, flooding and lack of insurance have resulted in a greater need for assistance.

Vulnerable populations need access to sustainable solutions. We’d like to see organic produce available and found in all communities and will work with stakeholders to continue using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds at farmers markets. We also support climate justice as a focus of food justice policies and climate action plans.

I recently attended a listening session on climate change, hosted by NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the group Front and Centered. Listening sessions are an effective way to genuinely hear, understand and incorporate local community stories and solutions. Food action plans, access to alternatives and personal impacts of climate change were all discussed. The group plans to produce an environmental justice map for Washington State, a report on climate impacts on communities of color, climate goals and strategies for Puget Sound that incorporate equity focus, and a Washington State plan for solar power deployment.

As we move forward, local policy solutions to climate change and community safety need to consider equity and the reality that vulnerable populations, especially low income populations who are often also people of color, are disproportionately impacted by climate change and severe storms. These same communities have fewer resources and a fragile infrastructure on which to rely in natural and ecological disasters. There is still time to make a difference and protect community and environmental health.

These are some groups on the ground in Florida that are dedicated to serving farmworkers and their families effectively. You may wish to support one or more of them to help farmworkers impacted by hurricane Irma. 

Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Farmworkers Self-Help Inc
Farmworker Association of FL
Centro Campesino Farmworker Center




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