Health and Climate with Dr. Adelita Cantu

Over the coming months, the Office of Sustainability (OS) will be interviewing community leaders on important issues surrounding climate and sustainability. Today, we are sharing an interview with Dr. Adelita Cantu who serves as the Vice-Chair for the Climate Equity Advisory Committee. 

Dr. Cantu is a doctorally-prepared Associate Professor at UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing. She teaches population health nursing to undergraduate nursing students and facilitates their learning about how decisions, particularly about health, are often influenced by social determinants of health, and in turn, how this impacts nursing practice.

Headshot of a smiling Dr. Cantu wearing a denim jacket over a white t shirt. Her hair is a light brown and curly.

OS: Dr. Cantu thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. First, I’d like to acknowledge that you are a San Antonio native with over 35 years of experience as a public and population nurse who focuses on community-based health research. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what your work entails?

Dr. Adelita Cantu: I am a bicultural public health nurse with expertise in the social determinants of health, particularly environmental health, and their impact on individuals, families and communities. My work is focused on establishing partnerships that promote the health and well-being of communities. I focus on the structural determinants that often lead to health inequities and transformational interventions that can have a positive impact.

OS: I understand that you are also a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) with a focus on including climate change and climate equity in health professional curriculums. Can you share more about this organization as well as how you would define climate equity? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: ANHE focuses on educating nurses about environmental health issues such as climate change and the impact it can have on their practice. The vulnerable populations who contribute the least to climate change are often the most burdened by its consequences. I view climate equity as a lens, one that considers the impacts of climate change on all communities but also prioritizes the needs of vulnerable communities. This lens calls for us to understand the structural mechanisms that have contributed to the inequity so we can reduce the impact of the mechanisms. We must also ensure the mitigation strategies reduce burdens without creating additional burdens.

OS: Data and science show that, generally, those who are least responsible for contributing to climate change, often endure the worst impacts. Would you agree and if so, how do you see those impacts with the community members you serve? If not, why do you disagree? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: I definitely agree with this statement. As a public health nurse, I see the highest impact among low-income families. Children of color often have the worst asthma rates and asthma discharge rates, and we are seeing more adult-onset asthma and other respiratory diseases that are exacerbated by climate change. In addition, low-income seniors are more vulnerable to heat exhaustion.

Climate change is also contributing to mental health issues. Depression and anxiety about prolonged heat waves and/or droughts have been seen more and more with people of all ages. These are issues that impact us all; however, vulnerable communities, due to a lack of resources, suffer the burdens more.

OS: Our theme for this conversation with you is ‘Health & Climate’. From your perspective, how do these two areas intersect (health and climate)? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: The two are interconnected. Our climate includes the air that we breathe, the food that is raised for us to consume; the water that we drink, etc. All of these factors (air, food, water) impact our health. Thus, we cannot separate the two.

"...people will change their behavior when given the opportunity to do so through a partnership... that takes into account their resources... most importantly, their perception of their own ability to make that change."

OS: What have you learned about individual and community behavior change through your clinical nursing research that could be used to help shift behaviors around climate and environment? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: This is a loaded question! I have learned that people will change their behavior when given the opportunity to do so through a partnership that includes culturally-relevant health education that takes into account their resources, demonstration and most importantly, their perception of their own ability to make that change. The key is that communities play an active role in designing those changes and the messaging around them, understanding that each community is unique.  

OS: With your focus on health promotion and the prevention of chronic diseases, particularly among underserved populations, what sorts of recommendations do you make for culturally relevant behavioral lifestyle changes? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: It starts with understanding the person you are working with: What is it like to be them each day? Where do they live? What type of work do they do? Tell me about their family. What is most important to them? It starts with knowing the individual and then adapting their education accordingly. 

OS: Can you explain more about your qualitative research style and methodologies, especially your community-centered approaches?

Dr. Adelita Cantu: This type of research is important if researchers want to understand the unique needs of people. It is often the go-to method for developing culturally sensitive interventions that will be meaningful. It begins by talking, in a focus group or individually, about the topic of interest. Then, the narrative data is analyzed to get common themes. Once those themes are assessed, go back and ask the participants if their thoughts were captured correctly.  We then use this information to design a culturally-relevant intervention and evaluate the impact. 

OS: What are the most pressing challenges we face as San Antonio community members with regards to the convergence of these interlinked issues (health and climate)? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: The most pressing challenges are the structural barriers that have contributed to inequitable burdens and getting everyone on board with the solutions to these long-standing structural barriers.

OS: Which community members will be most affected by the impacts of climate change on health? And why? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: Definitely low-income communities and people of color. 

OS: As you learn about how other communities are trying to address challenges like these, what solutions do you see working best in San Antonio? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: Several:  making electric vehicle infrastructure more equitable, increasing tree canopies, increasing the amount of green spaces, encouraging the use of public transportation, and certainly reducing GHG emissions.

Red trolley with the words "Red Route" in the front window. Trees and stores are in the background

OS: What is one key action that every individual can take to help tackle climate-related health challenges and have a positive impact for themselves and their community? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: I believe the first step is for everyone to increase their level of awareness about climate change. Without a shared understanding of this issue, we cannot achieve full climate equity.

OS: What inspires or encourages you most about your work and/or that of others with whom you partner on this critical issue of health and the effects of climate change? 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: My years as an educator frames this, but what inspires me is presenting information about climate change and health and then seeing the lightbulb go off when someone truly understands how the two are linked.

OS: What is your hope or vision for a San Antonio that has overcome these challenges? What does it look like? Paint us a picture. 

Dr. Adelita Cantu: Simple. My hope is that every individual in San Antonio has the knowledge and the resources to live a healthy and well-meaning life for themselves and their families. Big challenge, I know, but my vision for San Antonio is that we recognize when we are all well, we are all well.