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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Dr. Luis Manriquez and Kirby Weythman: The heat wave, health and healthy public policy

By Dr. Luis Manriquez and Kirby Weythman

By Dr. Luis Manriquez and Kirby Weythman

Like all Washingtonians, we are devastated by the tragic loss of life due to the recent record-breaking heat wave that has killed 91 people, including 20 from Spokane County. As a local physician and low-income housing inspector, we see firsthand the harm from extreme heat. It lands especially hard on children and the elderly, and disproportionately on people of color.

Heat is the No. 1 killer when it comes to extreme weather events, and we’re going to be seeing heat waves more often due to due to climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as more frequent wildfire smoke that forces people to head indoors and shut windows. The signs are unmistakable: we need more action and leadership by state and local governments to help people with practical solutions that can protect public health – and also help prevent a future where uninhibited climate change makes the kinds of impacts we’re already seeing many times worse.

One solution that can deliver on both goals is support from government and utilities for a shift toward electric heat pumps in homes instead of furnaces that burn natural gas, a fossil fuel that’s bad for both health and climate. Today’s electric heat pumps are pretty amazing: they provide both heating and cooling through the same unit, are many times more efficient than gas furnaces, and work well in cold climates too. In fact, they still perform well and operate more efficiently than gas systems even at sub-zero winter temperatures.

Of course, it’s the air conditioning that’s on our minds in summer now, and will be when wildfire smoke is bad, but the capable performance of heat pumps in winter is important too for any building investment. It’s a more recent development in the technology that’s finally starting to become more widely known. For new construction, the economics of building all-electric – with heat pumps for air conditioning, heating, and water heating, and electric induction for cooking – are already cost-saving. Avoiding gas lines and hookups saves thousands of dollars in up-front costs.

Another clear benefit of electric appliances is putting more clean energy to use. Here in Washington, our electric grid is already among the cleanest in the country, and will keep getting cleaner. Using methane gas simply isn’t clean. There’s the water pollution that comes with fracking, the methane pollution that comes with drilling and pipelines, and the health and climate impacts that come from the combustion pollution when the gas is burned in appliances.

In Washington, homes and buildings are the single fastest-growing source of climate pollution. When gas is burned in stoves, furnaces and water heaters, the pollutants released include nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide, nitric oxide and ultrafine particles, which can exacerbate and lead to the development of asthma, heart attacks and strokes. Numerous studies show children living in a home with a gas stove have a 42 percent higher chance of having asthma. It’s a truly sobering finding that pollution from burning gas in buildings in Washington contributes to more premature deaths in the state each year than air pollution from any other sector, including industry and transportation.

With air pollution health issues disproportionately impacting communities of color in Washington – who are more likely to live in areas with higher levels of both indoor and outdoor air pollution – this is where there is real urgency for strong and equitable utility and public policies and investment. Low-income weatherization programs are one key avenue. These programs can support both the home energy sealing and appliance upgrades that can improve comfort, health and energy bill affordability long-term, but we’ve got to increase funding.

Other important arenas for action include encouraging and enabling much better incentives from utilities for conversion to electric appliances; better leadership from government and utilities on public, contractor and workforce education and training for the building sector shift we need toward clean electric HVAC; and updating local energy and building codes for the clean energy era.

As we recover from the latest heat wave and prepare for the next, let’s urge action on these practical solutions and steps from our government and utility leaders that can keep our communities safer in a warming world. As we do, we can also do our part to give our younger generation the best possible chance of a livable climate over their lifetimes too.

Dr. Luis Manriquez is the regional organizer for the Health Equity Circle and a family physician who co-founded the Spokane Street Medicine program. Kirby Weythman works for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners to improve the health of and reduce energy use of the homes of low-income clients in Spokane County through the Low-income Weatherization Program.