Healthy environment

Impact of climate change on human health

aScreen Shot 2017-01-22 at 9.49.45 PMFor years, medical professionals have been telling the populace to take care of their health and for good reason. We brush our teeth to avoid tooth decay, we take antibiotics to inhibit the growth of infections and we eat healthy to keep the human unit running.

But what about the aspects of health we can’t individually control?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change is among the greatest health risks of the 21st century.

Findings from a recent WHO global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks suggest premature death and disease can be significantly reduced as a result of cleaning up the environment.

According to the report, 23 per cent of deaths around the world result from modifiable environmental factors. At the top of the list of mitigable diseases are strokes, ischaemic heart disease, diarrhoea and cancers.

In summation, the near 200-page document suggests that a healthier planet will lead to healthier people.

So, as it turns out, by reducing our carbon footprint, while it may be detrimental to our petty student wallets — at least before we receive our rebates — we’re not only paying for cleaner air but also a cleaner bill of health.

While carbon levies and reduction of fossil fuels are certainly a start, it’s astounding that more isn’t being done to combat this global crisis.

“As health professionals, it is not actually easy to admit that what happens outside our clinics and hospitals has a greater impact on overall health status than what happens inside them,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; Dr. Trevor Hancock, professor and senior scholar in the School of Public Health at the University of Victoria and senior editor of the Canadian Journal of Public Health; and Robert Rattle, executive director with Crane Institute for Sustainability, in a media release from Environmental Communication Options (ECO Strategy).

What that means, then, is combating this life-threatening issue is up to the governments of the world, and not the doctors who, inevitably, will have to sew our broken selves back together.

In December 2015, a new policy, known as the Paris agreement, was adopted. Under this WHO-backed agreement, countries have agreed to constrain greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming from reaching two degrees Celsius. 

Moreover, the agreement aims to curb climate change’s negative effects on human health, such as air pollution, heat waves and droughts. It forces all countries to commit to clean and healthy futures.

This is inherently good, as people in lower-income or developing countries are at a higher risk of suffering from the aforementioned climate change-induced disease.

However, the Paris agreement falls under a similar category as carbon levies and reduction of fossil fuels: it’s a start, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Health professionals are mobilizing worldwide to ensure that our growing understanding of the linkage between human health and the natural environment is integrated into policy,” reads the ECO Strategy media release.

According to the release, the minister of environment and climate change Canada, Catherine McKenna, has established an expert panel review of environmental assessment process, which is requesting feedback from Canadians to hear how the group can better function.

“This is a critical opportunity to connect the health box and the environmental box.”

Furthermore, medical professionals in Canada have requested for human health impact assessments to be part of the Federal Environmental Assessment process.

These implications would require an analysis of any project’s impact on health determinates, such as income, housing and greenhouse gas emissions.

“This will allow health authorities to recognize and consider potential positive and negative health impacts of projects on their communities, to plan and fund healthcare provision services to address those impacts, and to suggest modifications to plans in order to mitigate negative health impacts.

“This integration has the potential to save not only lives but also money, as it is well-recognized that preventative medicine is cheaper than acute care.”

Canadian medical professionals have brought their input to society’s attention and our government should listen. But, it is our duty as students, the future workforce of our country, to understand and reinforce these claims, both for the longevity of our planet and for humankind.

We, as students, need to support our medical professionals and encourage the government to listen.

Without the federal and provincial governments putting more of a focus on the environment than they have characteristically done in the past, not only will the climate continue to change, so too will our health, and not for the better.

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