Richmond local receives recognition on local climate change research


Being a single mother can often be quite tricky.

Being a single mother during a global pandemic can make it even harder.

But, being a single mother during a pandemic while working on a climate change vulnerability project? Well, that is just about as difficult a situation as possible. However, Angela Spugnardi faced this difficult challenge and came out on the other side stronger! As well as with an award under her belt.

In 2019, before Spugnardi graduated in the fall of 2020 from Eastern Kentucky University with a Masters of public health with an emphasis on environmental health, the director of the Madison County Health Department approached one of her professor's and asked if there was a student who was interested in researching climate change.

"I jumped on it; that's all me," Spugnardi said.

At the start of 2020, the research began. Spugnardi explained it took the entire year to get the research and put the project together. The project was meant to draft a climate change adaptation plan for Madison County. This is so the health department can implement changes to policies and prepare for the increased burden of health conditions from climate change.

Spugnardi explained increased heat could make diabetes and obesity worse, as well as heart conditions. So, the research was meant to help the health department plan for an increase in illness and protect people from it.

"I started with an idea and absolutely nothing else," Spugnardi said. "This is something which really hasn't been done."

So, she had to find anywhere which had done vulnerability research concerning climate change. According to the international panel of climate change, the definition of vulnerability in regards to climate change, Spugnardi explained, according to the international panel of climate change, is the degree to which a system is susceptible to and unable to cope with adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes.

Spugnardi said Madison County is seeing a change in climate variability. However, it might not look how some people would expect climate variability to look. She explained some places you can see where temperatures are rising because they're getting extreme temperatures they've never had before. However, Kentucky is not seeing that. This is because, in the 1930s, Kentucky had extremely high temperatures.

"It's hard to see an upwards trend when extreme highs were so high almost 100 years ago," Spugnardi explained. So, what is happening in Madison County is different. She said Madison County's minimum temperatures are rising. This means there is less variability between high temperatures and low temperatures.

"They're (temperatures) not dropping like they used to," Spugnardi said. "So, the heat of the day lasts longer. It's going into the night hours now, instead of dropping low like it used to. That's an issue. It means heat islands, such as pavement, hold the heat and aren't cooling down as well.

Spugnardi also said Madison County's winters are getting warmer. She said the county still sees extreme weather, but overall the winters are getting warmer. And, the county is seeing much more precipitation.

"Madison County is seeing at least one flash flood every year since 2010," Spugnardi said.

Finding this variability was important. But, what the research is really interested in is how climate change is affecting health. To find that out, Spugnardi had to go into the health aspect of the county. She looked at the leading causes of death in Madison County and found three considered climate-sensitive: heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke.

"So, a change in higher temperatures may lead to more severe conditions," Spugnardi explained. She went on to say there was a portion of the research which asked, what are we going to do about it?

In formulating her answers to this question, Spugnardi looked to the CDC. She explained, while researching, she tried to follow the Building Resilience Against Climate Effect (BRACE) framework put out by the CDC. She explained they have a guideline set up which said these are conditions to look for; these are climatic conditions which can affect them; this is the data you should get together. And they also give a guide on where to focus and some suggestions on how to solve some of the issues.

The plan the research has come up with will be presented to the board of health within the year, Spugnardi said. And they are eager to see which changes the stakeholders will decide they want to implement for Madison County.

The research was finished in December of 2020. However, it was a bittersweet moment for Spugnardi.

"It was really sad," Spugnardi admitted. "It made it even more sad that I thought that was going to be the greatest moment of my life. It was what I'd been waiting for for ten years, what I'd been working so hard for. And it was sad. Because there was no celebration, it was just done. I wasn't going to walk… It just felt empty."

COVID-19 restrictions and closures brought a lot of hardships to the table for Spugnardi. For example, she explained, before the pandemic, she was a resident of the Scholar House on EKU's campus as well as a part of the Center for Student Parents. As a member, she had to work 20 hours a week, and with the research project, that was no problem. Especially considering the Scholar House provided daycare for her youngest and her oldest was going to school. Then, at night when her classes were, her father was able to watch the children.

"We had a system that worked and worked really well," Spugnardi said. "… But soon, everything shut down, and there were no more daycares. I had to homeschool. I no longer had an office, and no longer had babysitting. Everything fell on me."

She said it was exactly what she didn't want to happen.

"It was like I lost everything and still had to do everything at the same time," Spugnardi said. "… This meant logging my son into his classes all day long, along with doing my research. And my youngest, he needed to be entertained and have snack time and nap time. Then I had study hours and classes in the evening."

"It really was my worst nightmare," Spugnardi said. However, despite this being one of the most challenging times of her life, it helped her to realize just how capable she was.

"I would never want to go through that again, but now I know that I can do it," Spugnardi said. "I was so scared of being a single mom with two kids trying to work and support them and go to school. I thought, 'I can't do this; this is not possible.' And I wound up in the exact position I did not want to be in, and I realized I could do this."

Despite her triumphant feeling of not being beaten down by the odds, finishing her research was still somewhat bittersweet. It wasn't until she received the news she was being rewarded for her research by the Association of Environmental Health Academic Program (AEHAP) in their 2021 student research competition.

"That was when I finally was able to say, 'this was worth it,'" Spugnardi said. "… That moment really solidified it, saying, 'hey, you did something, so be proud of it and let go.'"

Spugnardi has taken a full-time position with the Kentucky Department of Public Health, with the Madison County Health Department. And though her current position does not deal with this research, she fully plans to continue her work, albeit as a side project.

"I'm just very passionate about it," Spugnardi said.

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