Climate change is a medical issue and it is creating a public health emergency. We need our decision-makers and leaders to act now. Most immediately, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission should adopt a strong Zero Emission Vehicle program — a critical step to reducing harmful carbon-dioxide emissions and protecting public health.

In Colorado, we are already experiencing the health-related impacts of extreme heat, increased air pollution, more potent and destructive wildfires, droughts and other climate-related events. These impacts include heat illness, worsening respiratory conditions like asthma, declining mental health, and infectious and insect-borne diseases.

Last summer, some 229 wildfires burned in northwest Colorado alone — making it one of the worst and most expensive in history. Countless residents in the Grand Valley felt the health impacts of increased pollutants and smoky air, especially those most at risk to experience health harm — children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

According to the American Lung Association, 33,000 children live in Mesa County and they are especially vulnerable to air pollution because their lungs are still developing. Mesa County is also home to approximately 13,500 adults and children with asthma and nearly 28,000 elderly people.

Having worked as an emergency room and hospice nurse I have seen firsthand how asthma attacks and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease exacerbations are triggered by air pollution. Patients tell you that they feel like an elephant is sitting on their chest, that they cannot get air in or out. They tell you that they feel desperate to breathe. You watch as they shake and gasp for air with fear in their eyes.

Medical providers can prescribe medications, inhalers and other therapies to patients to mitigate health effects, but if patients continue to breathe polluted air, they'll end up back in an emergency room or doctor's office.

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission should act to reduce harmful air pollution and protect our most vulnerable residents by voting to approve a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program. Beginning in the year 2023, the ZEV program would require a small percentage of passenger vehicles sales be plug-in hybrid, battery electric, or fuel cell vehicles.

With nearly one-third of carbon emissions in Colorado due to transportation, the commission can't afford to ignore the public health risks.

Climate change makes it harder to protect human health. We need policies that help reduce the health impacts of climate change. I urge the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to prioritize public health and support clean air by passing a strong Zero Emission Vehicle program.

Mary Casey is a registered nurse who has worked with health-care organizations throughout the Grand Valley. She lives in Palisade.

Recommended for you