Climate change negatively affects health

Dr Joslyn Ngu
12 Sep 2017
Climate change negatively affects health

Doctors need to understand the relationship between climate change and health in order to better communicate the risks with patients and influence public policy, says a respiratory physician.

Climate change affects the environmental and social determinants of health, and causes heat-related, respiratory and mental health disorders; infectious diseases; and malnutrition secondary to food insecurity, said Dr Hooi Lai Ngoh, who was speaking at the Malaysian Thoracic Society Annual Congress 2017.

Heat waves bring with them an elevated risk of heat stroke, especially for the elderly, obese and those with medical illnesses, she said. Patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) bears a disproportionate disease burden from climate change related to increased heat, temperature variability, extreme weather events, worsening air pollution and other environmental exposures caused by climate change such as increased aeroallergens.

Forest fires, dust storms, and increased production of pollens and spores—which are results of climate change—contribute to air pollution. For instance, burning fires release a range of pollutants such as particulate matter and carcinogens, said Hooi. Studies have shown that exposure to particulate matters can increase the risk of lung cancer incidence and mortality.

Elevated temperature and rain precipitation variability are also likely to be the culprit for malnutrition as food production is adversely affected in regions with lower socioeconomic classes, she explained.

Over the last 130 years, the world’s temperature has increased by around 0.85˚C; glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising. Rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather events have destroyed homes, medical facilities and other essential services.

The temperature of the world has been significantly increasing because of increased greenhouse gas emission, said Hooi. The main sources of greenhouse gases are human activities, such as combustion of fossil fuels, overuse of nitrate fertilizers and accumulation of chlorofluorocarbons from use in solvents.

Efforts must be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change before the impact on health worsens. The areas that need to be addressed are those that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, namely energy production, house heating, transportation, agriculture and foodproduction, and waste management, explained Hooi.

On a more personal level, there are numerous methods that members of the medical community can adopt to help battle climate change. First, reduce the frequency of long distance air travel and opt for electronic communication methods such as video-conferences instead. Second, reduce the frequency of large, annual scientific meetings to once every 2 years. Smaller local meetings that do not require long distance air travel can be held in the alternate years, she suggested.

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