Overcrowded California Golden State Faces Serious Public Health & Environmental Crisis

Overcrowded California
McWay Falls, Big Sur, California. Credit: Roddy Scheer

When most people think of California, they think of sunshine, palm trees and beaches. However, there is another, grimmer side to California. Overcrowding, pollution and climate change is creating a serious health and environmental crisis in the Golden State. While the problem is multifaceted, one thing is clear: the issue must be addressed before it becomes much worse.

California: The Smoggiest State?

Anyone looking at the city of Los Angeles from a distance can’t help but notice the rusty brown cloud that hovers around the city like a malign blanket meant to smother, not warm. An atmospheric pattern known as inversion is responsible for this phenomenon. It prevents pollution made up of particulates from power plants, factories and, most importantly, millions of cars and trucks.

Anyone who has ever driven in L.A. knows why the city is notorious for traffic. It’s not uncommon for freeways to slow to a crawl during rush hour due to the sheer number of vehicles on the road. Diesel dust, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emitted from automobiles damage the respiratory system and can result in permanent lung damage. The problem is dire. Anywhere from 9600 to 21,000 people die every year in California from lung problems due primarily to exposure to smog.

Environmental Threats in California

Even though California has instituted some of the strictest emissions testing laws in the nation, the state continues to rank among the top states for air pollution.

Climate change has also contributed to an environmental nightmare in California. Nearly everyone knows about the devastating wildfires that destroyed 8900 homes and claimed 42 lives in northern California this year. The fires have been definitively linked to climate change, and the worst may be yet to come. According to one estimate, as much as 74% of California may go up in smoke by the year 2100.

Fires aren’t the only problem climate change may cause for California. As a state renowned for its coastlines, rising sea levels put a great deal of Californians in jeopardy of losing their homes and lives. As much as 200 miles of shoreline in San Francisco alone may be underwater by the year 2100. As many as a million Californians may be in danger of losing their homes due to rising sea levels. Some may lose more than their homes — the poor, those without a vehicle and the homebound are especially vulnerable.

Rising heat waves pose yet another environmental and public health risk. In one such heat wave which struck in 2006, tens of thousands of livestock perished. Hundreds of thousands of miles of farmland lay vacant due to the relentless drought. And, of course, food shortages lead to higher prices, which predominantly impact those of low socioeconomic means — when the poorest among us can’t afford to purchase healthy food, their overall physical health suffers as well.

How the Environmental Crisis Impacts Public Health

The environment we live in has a significant impact on our overall mental, spiritual and physical well-being. Food shortages aren’t the only health impact that damage to the environment causes. There are other, more insidious health crises lurking, as well, due to environmental change.

When farms shut down due to drought or wildfires, thousands of farm workers suddenly find themselves out of work. When you combine this with the high cost of housing in California, homelessness inevitably results. Life on the streets comes with obvious health risks, but some are less predictable than others.

One such public health disaster caused by homelessness is a dramatic hepatitis outbreak among San Diego’s homeless communities. Just out of the public eye, homeless camps, often with conditions rivaling that of war-torn nations, erupt when people have nowhere else to go. And as the homeless lack restrooms, many of them use the area around their tents and encampments to relieve themselves.

The problem with this is that contamination by fecal matter is how hepatitis is spread. The combination of unsanitary conditions and individuals who are often already in failing physical health creates a ripe ground for bacteria and viruses, such as those which cause hepatitis, to spread. In a state that is already grappling with an unsustainable health care system, this is a recipe for disaster when a disease like this spreads so wildly amongst the general public.

Worse, in fertile conditions, germs can mutate and become even more debilitating. California has, for example, seen an increase in antibiotic-resistant strains of several sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea. Also, more aggressive strains of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, have also been on the rise in California.

Action Is Needed Now

California is just another example of how our lack of care for our planet extends into our own health and wellbeing. Those who believe that climate change is a hoax aren’t considering the consequences of passing off this important issue. It is perhaps unfair that the actions of those with privilege impact the climate in such a manner that the health of those in lower socioeconomic classes is impacted. However, the diseases associated with environmental damage and climate change do not discriminate.

The ocean doesn’t care if it washes away a shack or a mansion on the shore. The spread of germs may begin with an outbreak among the poorest among us — however, over time, it can spread like one of California’s wildfires. Californians all have a responsibility and duty to act on climate change now. Failure to do so is undoubtedly a recipe for disaster for not only our environment, but also our people.