Climate change: bigger health hazard than COVID

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BREAZE Board member, Sally Missing, who has a professional background as a public health manager, recently spoke to Brett McDonald on Radio 3BA's Ballarat Today about how climate change is likely to impact on our health. You may find some of these impacts surprising. Overall, Sally's conclusion is that Climate Change is ushering in a public health crisis that will upstage the COVID pandemic. Sally has summarised her assessment in this article.

Code red for humanity

UN chief, Antonio Guterres has declared "a code red for humanity" in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report that was recently released.  We are all understandably very focussed on COVID-19, but climate change is actually a far bigger threat to our health and wellbeing.

Among other effects, climate change is contributing to:
          • • worsening air quality,
          • • changes in the spread of infectious diseases,
          • • risks to food safety and drinking water quality,
          • • and effects on mental health.
Climate change and health

In Australia we are already seeing the effects of climate change – in particular bushfires and drought.  Most people will immediately think of death and injury from bushfires, storms and floods. This is just the tip of the iceberg. What is less well known is the health impact of heat waves and air pollution from smoke and fossil fuel burning. Even more concerning, the World Health Organisation says that climate change: “threatens the essential ingredients of good health - clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply, and safe shelter.”

Bushfires 

In the massive and prolonged 2019-20 bushfires - when the east coast of Australia was in flames for months - 33 people died. What is less well known is that smoke from these fires was linked to more than 445 deaths and more than 4,000 people were admitted to hospital due to the smoke.

The effects of a bushfire are felt for many years afterwards. For every person that has tragically died in our bushfires, many more suffer loss, grief and trauma from losing a family member, friend, work colleague, family pet, home or holiday home. Many people were also displaced from their homes temporarily or permanently. 

Heat stress: Heatwaves and very hot days

Temperature records are breaking around the globe and the northern hemisphere has recently experienced a heatwave. Heatwaves can cause heatstroke (severe hyperthermia) as well as a worsening of existing health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease. In Victoria, there were 374 extra deaths during a heatwave in 2009 from 26 January to 1 February.

High temperatures raise the levels of pollutants in the air that affect heart and lung diseases. New research has found that pollutants in smoke billowing from huge wildfires in the west of America have probably caused an increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths across several US states.

Heatwaves particularly affect older people, especially older people living in poor conditions who may not have access to air conditioning. Older people may be less aware of their body’s messages to drink and cool down. 

Pollen and other allergens are also higher in extreme heat. These can trigger asthma. You remember the thunderstorm asthma a few years back in Victoria? Hundreds of people had sudden, severe asthma attacks some of which were fatal, and the ambulance service and hospitals were completely overwhelmed.  This event was unprecedented.

Floods and extreme rainfall are also increasing in frequency and intensity

Severe storms cause loss of life and injury, loss of homes and damage to infrastructure as well as contamination of drinking water leading to gastro outbreaks. 

Drought

In Australia, drought puts a huge strain on farmers’ mental and financial wellbeing.  Our dried-up waterways have led to mass fish deaths and poor water quality and affected food production and costs. In poorer countries drought can cause malnutrition and death due to water-related disease such as E. coli, airborne and dust-related disease, mosquito borne diseases such as dengue fever as well as mental health effects and distress.

Mozzies, fleas and ticks

As the planet warms, diseases spread by small creatures such as mozzies, fleas and ticks increase their range.  This means that diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, spread by mozzies, which normally live in the tropics and subtropics will move further north and south. (spreading to new areas, including outbreaks in Europe and southern parts of the United States) Lyme disease, spread by ticks is also likely to become more prevalent and Ross River Fever experienced in parts of Australia appears to be increasing its range. 

Climate change affects some more than others

The poor will be the most affected by climate change.  This includes those that don’t have the resources to move or adapt or pay their way out of difficulties. Areas that have poor emergency infrastructure and medical services are less able to respond to severe weather incidents. Some of the low-lying pacific islands are already feeling the effects. For example: Samoa has a population that mainly lives on the coast.  Their fresh water comes from wells that run from inland mountains down to the coast.  As sea levels rise, their fresh water supply could be over-run with saltwater. 

The mental health impacts of climate change are significant

In the aftermath of dramatic weather events and drought, there is loss, grief and trauma.  In addition, many people feel depression and anxiety about climate change and feel pessimistic about the future.  One way to deal with these feelings is to get involved. Here are some suggestions for what you can do.  Remember: “No one is too small to make a difference” Greta Thunberg. An important lesson of Covid is that what happens on the other side of the world affects us here and vice versa.  The same is true for climate change. Like COVID-19, we all need to do our share, pull together, and look out for each other. 

What you can do
  • Join Breaze or get involved with another local advocacy group.
  • Let your politicians know – especially federal politicians, that you will be voting for action on climate change
  • You have power through your spending – consider moving your money away from the big 4 banks – they are still supporting fossil fuels.
  • Move your super to a super fund that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels
  • Reduce your carbon footprint:
    • Buy local food or grow your own
    • Insulate your house and buy energy efficient appliances. 
    • Re-think your travel miles – especially air miles 
  • Be a good neighbour - especially to older people and those that are vulnerable. Check on your neighbours. Warn of high heat days and offer to do shopping or errands.
Sally Missing
Member, BREAZE Inc Board