…and why it matters to healthcare
By Elodie Jacquet
As Canadians prepare to head to the polling stations and attack ads seem to be lurking in every corner of the mainstream media, one issue seems to have completely fallen off the radars: climate change. As Jeffrey Simpson reports in a recent column in the Globe and Mail: “In a country with the worst record in the industrialized world for greenhouse gas emissions, you might have thought that the subject of climate change might merit more than a cursory discussion.” As much as the carbon tax was an issue during the last election, carbon-related issues have left the centre stage to be replaced by a much more popular issue, healthcare.
I understand how climate change and its complexities can make for an obscure and intangible threat to citizens and politicians alike. However, scientists have come to an overwhelming consensus that human activities are definitely affecting our climate and in so, shaping our futures. It is time that our government faced this fact and started taking action. Downplaying the issue is not in the best interest of Canada. Our federal government’s inaction on climate change is undermining our resilience as a country, negatively impacting our long-term economic interests and creating greater health care costs.
So, how does climate actually affect the future of our healthcare system? Let’s look at our own government’s research. The following is an excerpt from the Health Canada website:
Health Canada has identified seven categories of climate-related impacts, and the potential effects these can have on health and well-being.
1- Temperature-related Morbidity and Mortality
- Illness related to extreme cold and heat events
- Respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses
- Increased occupational health risks
2- Weather-related Natural Hazards
- Damaged public health infrastructure
- Injuries and illnesses
- Social and mental stress
- Increased occupational health hazards
- Population displacement
3- Air Quality
- Increased exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollutants and allergens
- Respiratory diseases
- Heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases
4- Water- and Food-borne Contamination
- Intestinal disorders and illnesses caused by chemical and biological contaminants
5- Vector-borne and Zoonotic Diseases
- Changed patterns of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and other pathogens carried by mosquitoes, ticks, and animals
6- Health Effects of Exposure to Ultraviolet Rays
- Skin damage and skin cancer
- Disturbed immune function
7- Socio-economic Impacts on Community Health and Well-being
A changing climate can increase the frequency, intensity or duration of extreme weather conditions which increases risks for vulnerable populations and communities in areas exposed to natural hazards.
- Demands on Health Care Services – Extra pressure is placed on Health care services by increased demands resulting from weather-related natural hazards, eg. floods.
- Disruption of Social Networks – Power outages can occur as a result of extreme weather-related events, which can affect our ability to communicate during emergencies.
- Interference with Livelihoods – People experience stress if their livelihoods and productivity are threatened, for example, farmers suffering crop failures and income losses due to droughts.
- Damage to, or unavailability of, housing and shelter – Climate change can increase the number of extreme weather events which can damage buildings. This causes trauma for people having to relocate, as occurred following the Saguenay River flood in 1996.
- Damage to critical infrastructures – Virtually all our infrastructures are designed for a specific climate, such as those related to food production, water management, energy production, storm sewer, drainage and sanitation systems, and housing and health infrastructures. Health risks can arise when any one of these systems fails or becomes compromised – as they may in a changing climate.
We all know that the key element to prevent our healthcare costs from going through the roof is prevention. By addressing the challenges of climate change, we should be able to mitigate the effects on our health and on the cost of healthcare, especially for those most vulnerable. And let’s not kid ourselves here: we do have some very vulnerable populations within the confines of our borders. The more we wait, the higher the cost will be, cost of healthcare of course, but also the cost of the lost of competitiveness of Canada on the global stage. While we congratulate ourselves on the soundness of our banking system and on our swift recovery from the recession, we should be thinking about how the changing climate is and will be affecting our ability to remain healthy as a country.
 Health Canada: Understanding the health effects of climate change