Climate Change and Your Health

We have all begun to notice the changes in our seasonal weather- warmer winters and scorching summers. With the scientific, political and celebrity publicity that our warming planet has received as of recent, the concept of climate change is to some degree understood by most people. Climate change is no longer just an environmental issue. Weather and climate have shaped human distribution geography and have affected human health for millennia. Without a doubt there exists a climate-health relationship. We are living through a major climate shift that is and will continue to affect us.

Reading the morning newspaper and watching the television news, headlines of the drought that has led to the famine plaguing the Eastern Africa Region (Horn of Africa) are everywhere as of recent. The graphic images of children wasting away are disturbing. Due to the drought in this region, more than 10,000 people have died and the lives of over 12 million are in jeopardy. We know that these numbers are huge, but for some perspective, the number of people that have died is equivalent to eliminating about all of UHN employees. The number of people suffering and in jeopardy is equivalent to a drought affecting all residents of Ontario. I am shocked but I have sadly become “accustomed” to this type of news. With so many distresses arising out of climate change, this is just another news headline to me. I am disgusted with myself for even admitting that. But it is true, such news are frequent. Climate change is here, affecting us, and we are growing accustomed to it. So I switch off the television, turn the newspaper page to something more entertaining, till I hear again about the next “big” climate change disaster.

Drought is not something that we fear here in Toronto. We have our own climate change related issues. Scientists have known that climate change will bring about more extreme and more frequent heat waves. Here in Toronto, we have experienced six heat alerts for this summer alone. For me, I enjoy warm temperatures; but there is a serious side of these summer scorchers. From mild heat rashes to heat strokes to heat related deaths, I am certain that this summer our hospitals have dealt with such issues.

Other climate change related health concerns include:

  • the rise of infectious diseases, especially those that are vector-borne. In areas where low temperatures restrict the transmission of vector-borne diseases, climate change could tip the ecological balance and could trigger epidemics. Despite using repellents like sprays, fancy candles, etc., who hasn’t been bitten by a mosquito this summer?! Mosquito-borne infections increase with warming temperatures
  • food poisoning through microbial proliferation- just leave a slab of chicken out and see what happens…(for the sake of our legal team, please don’t try this)
  • increased allergies due to a longer pollen season

To deal with such health issues, the public turns to healthcare professionals for guidance. But it is our hospitals that inadvertently contribute to climate change and these health issues. Hospitals are energy intensive. For example, our rising temperatures increase the demand for electricity to cool our offices, our patient rooms, etc. This is resource intensive, demanding the combustion of fossil fuels- that can in turn generate airborne particulates that can lead to increased respiratory diseases.

Climate change seems so much bigger that us- how powerful is one person to make a difference. The many ideas, initiatives, programs and policies to help alleviate climate change come from government action; but as healthcare professionals, we too have a particular responsibility. The voice of healthcare professionals is powerful. From our day-to-day encounters with patients, we can identify those health problems that can be linked to climate change. We can engage in initiatives to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions and most importantly, we have the ability to encourage others to do the same in our personal, professional and public lives.

Energy and Environment knows that much can be done with our cooperation, doing our little part to contribute to a greater purpose. We are always encouraging UHN employees to conserve energy. Please visit Energy Efficiency @ UHN for tips on how you can conserve energy at work. Also on our Energy and Environment website, we share greener ways to get to work that would reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions released into the atmosphere: UHN Carpool Zone, Cycling @ UHN.

Climate change is a big issue which has no quick fix. But the good news is that there are a lot of things that we can do to mitigate the effects. For me, my little contribution involves turning off the lights in unoccupied areas and using the public transit to get to work.

Climate change is no longer a distant thought, it is here.

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