Wednesday, April 16, 2008

It's Official - Global Warming is Bad for Your Health

Health professionals around the world have issued a variety of warnings about the impact of global warming on human health.

In Canada, the Ontario College of Family Physicians has issued a report highlighting the dangers to public health of continued climate change. These include an increase in the incidence of heat stroke and respiratory illness, especially among children and older people. Citing a two-week heat wave in France in 2003 which resulted in 15,000 premature deaths, the College is urging medical services to prepare for similar events in Canada and elsewhere in the coming years. The report also predicts an increase in the number of cases of malaria and dengue fever, caught by Canadians returning from vacations in a warmer Caribbean. Climate change will, says the report, also lead to an increase in Lyme disease (pictured) and west Nile virus – conditions which the vast majority of Canadian physicians have never seen let alone treated.

College President, Dr. Renee Arnold, says the negative health effects of climate change will be irreversible "if we don't get our act together now and stop damaging our environment."

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has issued a warning of 150,000 deaths a year as a direct result of climate change, with more than half coming from the Asia-Pacific region.

This number of fatalities will be caused by increases in malaria, malnutrition and diarrhoea as well as by flooding triggered by climate change. Citing outbreaks of malaria in regions once considered too cold for the disease to survive – such as the highlands of Papua new Guinea – WHO spokesman Shigeru Omi describes the health effects of climate change as lasting for the long term: "it is inevitable climate change will get worse for some time," Omi said.

Related health developments cited by the WHO include:

  • Increased water-borne illness caused by sea water seepage into ground water supplies in Pacific Island nations such as Tuvulu and the Marshall Islands
  • Deaths caused by increased flooding and droughts
  • The spread of disease caused by the migration of people rendered homeless through environmental degradation

In a separate report, the WHO has also highlighted the link between climate change and mental health with evidence that extreme weather conditions can lead to psychiatric illness.

"Psychosocial illnesses are a part of the various health issues associated with climate change," according to Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Deputy Regional Director of the WHO.

Studies of severe flooding in England and a cyclone-affected area of Orissa in India have demonstrated an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder among affected populations, up to one year after the initial climate event.

The relationship between drought and mental health has been long established: "The phenomenon of farmers’ suicides in India is a typical example of consequences of climatic vagaries in poor, predominantly agrarian economies," according to the report.

Following the Asian tsunami, the WHO estimated that 20-40 per cent of affected people suffered from short-term mild psychological distress and that another 30-50 per cent experienced moderate-to-severe psychological stress. Similar results emerged from those affected by Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

The report concludes that people living in poverty, those in geographically vulnerable areas and those highly dependent on farming for their livelihood are among the groups more likely to experience mental health problems sparked by extreme weather patterns.

Australian doctors, meanwhile, have warned of increased rates of climate-change related illness in Australia and the Pacific, citing heat stroke, mosquito-borne illness and gastroenteritis as representing particular problems.

Dr Graeme Horton is quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as saying, "Climate change is clearly much, much more than an economic inconvenience, it is a threat to our life support systems."

The final warning comes from the British Medical Association which is calling on health professionals to take the lead in responding to the public health aspects of climate change.

Predictions include the possibility of malaria occurring in the UK, increased water-borne illnesses caused by flooding and a possible increase in skin cancers and sunstroke caused by heat waves becoming “common” by the middle of the C21. Head of Science and Ethics for the BMA, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, also foresees increased mental health issues sparked by climate change.

The BMA report predicts an economic imbalance in the health effects of climate change in the UK with the most deprived 10% of the population “eight times more likely to be living in the coastal floodplain than the least deprived 10 per cent” and thus more at risk.


Exactly one year after this post was published, evidence was submitted today by the US Environmental Protection Agency confirming that greenhouse gases represent a significant and direct threat to human health. Findings include:

  • concentrations of six greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluorideare - are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions
  • these high levels are "very likely" the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate
  • Climate change is resulting in increased drought and flooding; more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires; greater sea level rise; harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems
  • the health of the poor, the very young, the disabled and the elderly are disproportionately effected by climate change and increased concentrations of ground-level ozone

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1 comment:

Tina said...

It's amazing that the health of the planet is not the #1 issue in American politics.