Poor health for the planet means poor health for us

Published Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

If you monitor climate change headlines closely, you’ll discover some interesting stories.

‘Climate change is threatening your daily cup of coffee.’  ‘Chocolate will become an expensive luxury due to climate change.’  ‘Climate change could decimate wine production.’  And the most recent: ‘Climate change to make apples less crunchy.’

As eye-catching as such headlines are, it seems to me that they are distractions from a far, far larger story: climate change threatens massive impacts on human health and well being.  Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the UN’s World Health Organization, has said, “Climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the most fundamental determinants of health: food, air, water.” 

According to Health Canada, here are six major ways in which climate change will affect the health and well-being of Canadians:

1. Temperature, the obvious one: climate change will bring more heat waves, which will mean more heat strokes and dehydration.  People with respiratory or cardiovascular problems will be especially affected.  As well, people who work in occupations where high temperatures are already a challenge – roofers and road repair crews, for example – will find their workplaces even more stifling.  (Contrary to a popular misconception, the increase in heat-related deaths is not expected to be offset by a reduction in deaths stemming from warmer winters.) 

2. Extreme weather: an increase in the number of severe weather events will likely cause more direct injuries and, in some cases, deaths.  The damage such events inflict will cause much mental and financial stress for those affected.  As well, our health will be threatened by interruptions in critical services like electricity, water, food retailing and health care. 

3. Air quality: smog and ground-level ozone, presently issues mainly in Canada’s largest cities, can be expected to get worse as things get hotter, in part because more air conditioners will put a bigger load on greenhouse gas-emitting power plants.  As well, people who suffer from asthma or allergies will find their misery intensified: pollen, the agent at the root of much of their suffering, can be expected in greater abundance earlier in the spring and later into the fall.

4. Water and food borne contamination: because bacteria grow faster in warm environments, more cases of salmonella and other bacteria-related food poisoning can be expected.  As well, floodwaters and backed-up sewers are excellent sources of water-borne diseases.  After Hurricane Katrina, clean drinking water quickly became the most important commodity on the streets of New Orleans.

5. Pests and pathogens: a warmer climate will create more favourable conditions for pests like ticks and mosquitoes, which serve as vectors for health threats like Lyme’s disease and the West Nile virus.

6. Socio-economic impacts: more severe weather events will disrupt our communication links and social networks – inconveniences, but not life threatening as long as they are short term.  However, the huge costs of replacing damaged property and infrastructure will be borne by all of us through higher taxes or higher insurance premiums.  More money going into repairs means less money available for health care, education and other societal priorities.  A year ago, Superstorm Sandy inflicted over $70 billion in damage, equal to a quarter of Canada’s 2013 federal budget.  Toronto’s July 8 flash flood cost $850 million, making it Ontario’s mostly costly natural disaster ever.  And last June’s flooding in Calgary was recently confirmed as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, ringing in at $1.7 billion.  You have to wonder what got bumped from budgets because of these unplanned expenditures.

To add insult to injury, affected people sometimes even lose their livelihoods because severe weather events don’t spare places of employment.

A final nagging reality: the people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change will be seniors, children, northerners, the disabled, the homeless and people with low income.

So what to take from all this?  Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  I’m sure he’d agree it applies to climate change as much as it does to health and well-being.