Knowing that living in one zip code instead of another a few miles away can result in years of shorter life expectancy, Wake County is putting together a task force to deal with health disparities that could be touched by many segments of county government.
The Wake Board of Commissioners agreed to set up the twenty-five-member group during a session Monday in which they also heard an update on the presence of uranium in eastern Wake wells, as previously reported by the INDY ["Hot Water, August 17, 2016], and received a draft report on how the county is spending its transit bond funds.
Overall, Wake ranks at the top of North Carolina counties in terms of the health of its residents. But a report prepared for commissioners identified a number of potential trouble spots. Among them: higher-than-desired rates of chlamydia, adult obesity, physical inactivity, childhood poverty, unemployment, and alcohol-impaired driving deaths, and a too-low percentage of older women who received mammography screening. Indeed, 14 percent of the county's children live in poverty, more than 20 percent of its adults report no physical activity during leisure hours, and more than 25 percent of residents are obese.
No money is set aside for the new task force, whose report is due in April 2018. But Regina Petteway, Wake human services director, and Sig Hutchinson, the county commission chairman, said the task force will work to wrap health considerations around transportation, affordable housing, parks planning, and other county functions.
"I think we want to level the playing field around some of these disparities in life expectancy and quality of life," Petteway told the INDY after the meeting. (A child born in Wake County in 2015 can expect to live about 81.6 years, according to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics. White children have about four years' greater life expectancy than black children, and women live about four years longer than men.) "We have such an invested group of core partners."
"Your zip code can be a stronger determinant of your life expectancy than your parents," Hutchinson adds. "This [task force] can be the model of improving the health and welfare of our neighborhoods."
According to the presentation, members of the task force will be drawn from across vulnerable communities, health care organizations, foundations, social services, housing and business interests, human services agencies, and geographic regions.
Although parts of the task force's work will be directed at low-income populations, Petteway says, there's also a larger goal—for all residents to take better care of themselves. After all, the current wave of opioid and heroin abuse is striking all income levels, she notes.
"We recognize that it's going to take a while to get this done," Petteway says. "Health is a state of the community, not merely the absence of disease and infirmities."
Also on Monday, Commissioner John Burns presented new information on the uranium found in private wells in eastern Wake County.
"We want to assure the public that the uranium is from naturally occurring granite," Burns said. The county had begun testing for uranium in 2010, after a resident sent a sample of his well water to the state lab and it tested positive for high levels of uranium.
Burns recommended that landowners in areas of the county where groundwater is known to contain varying levels of uranium should have their water tested either through private contractors or through Wake County Environmental Services (the county's test costs $40). In addition, the Wake County Water Partnership, created by the commission in May, will hold its first meeting March 1.
Even though no spate of illness has been attributed to the uranium levels, which exceed federal allowable standards, "There are sites of potential concerns," Burns said. "We want to make sure that new wells that go in ... don't face contamination issues."
County staff will develop plans for evaluating wells and set up rules for groundwater protection, Burns said. (In 2014, as the INDY reported, the county's Water Quality Division ceased mandatory testing for uranium based on an interpretation of state regulations.)
Finally, Hutchinson announced the release Tuesday of a draft report on transit needs to be addressed with $91 million in funding from a voter-approved sales tax increase, as well as vehicle rental and registration taxes.
The plan for the fiscal year that starts in July, which requires approval by the Transit Planning Advisory Committee, gets into short-term needs "such as increasing weekend and evening service and to provide smaller capital projects such as ADA improvements and increased bus stops," the report says. It also puts money toward studies and plans for new routes and peak service provisions, as well as for capital projects like commuter rail and bus rapid-transit efforts.
"We want to push this out to citizens so that they do know that the plan is actually being implemented with more hours of service," Hutchinson told commissioners.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shape Up"