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Heat and health: Doctors taking the pulse of the planet on climate change

Climate change is a threat to the health of people, not just polar bears.

And the way shifting climatic patterns are affecting the environment is not a theoretical, faraway threat; it is causing real, measurable harm.

Those are the overarching messages from the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health (MSCCH), a group representing 11 large medical societies and more than 400,000 U.S. physicians.

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With its new report, entitled Medical Alert! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health, the consortium hopes that the high level of trust people place in their physicians will translate into the public taking the threat of climate change more seriously.

The MSCCH urges front-line doctors to talk to their patients about how climate change is making them sick, just as smoking or excess drinking does.

To be fair, Canadian doctors have spoken out on the dangers of climate change; both the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Medical Association have taken stands. But this new report is noteworthy, and encouraging, because it comes out of the United States, a hotbed of climate-change denial. However, polling done by the MSCCH shows that two in three Americans (and an equal number of doctors) actually believe climate change is real – President Donald Trump and his administration not being among them.

At the same time, only one in three Americans believe climate change poses a personal risk to them. The Medical Alert! report underscores that the threat is real, and current, in eight different ways:

  • Extreme temperatures: Climate change is causing more hot days, greater humidity and longer, hotter, more frequent heat waves. This is a particular threat to outdoor workers, athletes and city dwellers, especially if they don’t have air conditioning. The 10 hottest days on record in history have all occurred since 2000. (In Canada, extreme cold is also a threat to health.)
  • Extreme weather events: The frequency and severity of weather events, such as torrential downpours, droughts, storms and tornadoes, continues to increase. Extreme weather can knock out power and damage homes and infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, all of which can reduce access to medical care, food and water. The Louisiana flooding of 2016 and Hurricane Sandy are just two recent examples.
  • Outdoor air quality: Climate change reduces air quality because it increases smog and pollen production. Air pollution poses a serious threat to people with respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and allergies.
  • Wildfires: Increasing temperatures and more frequent droughts have fuelled wildfires worldwide. The smoke and particles are a serious threat to people with respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.
  • Ticks and mosquito-borne infections: As climate patterns change, so does the range of disease-carrying ticks, mosquitoes and fleas. Lyme disease is spreading, Zika is a new threat and warming temperature could even allow malaria to return to the United States.
  • Water-related infection: Higher water temperatures, rising sea levels, heavier storms and flooding can lead to contamination of drinking water and the proliferation of algae and water-borne pathogens such as E.coli and Vibrio.
  • Food-related infection: Extreme weather events affect not only waterways, but surrounding land; flooding and downpours can spread fecal bacteria and other pathogens.
  • Mental health and well-being: Aside from the physical harm caused by climate change, extreme weather events can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. The mental-health effects have been obvious in the aftermath of the devastating Fort McMurray wildfires.

That list, which is not exhaustive, focuses only on threats to the health of individuals. It doesn't mention the devastating economic impacts of climate change, nor the social upheaval that follows.

The MSCCH also notes that the burden of climate change is not evenly distributed – it is children, the elderly, those with chronic illnesses and the poor who suffer the greatest harm.

The U.S. physicians' consortium stresses that there is a clear scientific consensus that climate change is real, fuelled by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

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The doctors also call for urgent action, specifically to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As the report states: "Addressing climate change is the greatest public-health opportunity of the 21st century, and failure to adequately address it could undo the progress in global health over the past century."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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