'Climate change is going to be the next pandemic': Ontario doctors talk health effects on Earth Day

Ontario doctors call for stronger policy and more government action on Earth Day, warning that the health effects of climate change will be severe.

Emma Jones 6 minute read April 22, 2022
Earth melting into water

Climate change is resulting in more heat waves and more hot days throughout the year, which will lead to more incidents of heatstroke. GETTY

Ontario doctors are calling for stronger environmental recommendations and policies as they brace for the health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Kim-Chi Tran, a practising urologist at the Scarborough Health Network and co-founder of Green Is Health, recommends that the government clarifies what is needed from Ontario residents to push back against confusion and help alleviate some anxiety. She points out that many Ontarians — and Canadians at large — took the government’s advice about staying safe during the pandemic and claims more concrete guidelines form the government would be beneficial.

“People are confused. There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” says Tran. “… They need to have that messaging.”

Calls for more eco-policy in the Ontario health-care sector

The Ontario medical system is also starting to look at its own carbon footprint, which is responsible for roughly four to five per cent of carbon emissions, says Dr. Mili Roy, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Department of Ophthalmology and Ontario co-chair of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Steps that need to be taken include improving the energy efficiency of older hospitals and reducing carbon emissions from inhaled anaesthetic gases. Certain asthma inhalers also produce carbon, which Roy says can be easily managed for many patients by a switch to a more eco-friendly version.

Widespread change, however, won’t happen unless policy helps direct the different moving parts of the health-care sector.

“What we need is uptake. Policy is what drives us at the end of the day, so if we get a sweeping policy that mandates hospitals to switch to these newer methods of delivering anesthetic gases, then we really see an impact,” says Roy. “ … The traditional type of inhaler may [also] have better coverage for patients and may be less expensive. We need policy that will make the more climate friendly inhalers more affordable for patients as well.”

Considering worst-case scenarios, Tran also muses that health-care systems will have to be prepared for the increase in demand even as hospitals and clinics are themselves impacted by force majeure.

“If there’s a big flood or if there’s a big fire or heat wave, how are we going to deal with that? If there’s a blackout at the hospital? If we lose energy at the hospital? What are we going to do?” says Tran. “Do we have any idea of what sort of backups we have? And how long are they good for?”

More heat waves and air pollution lead to more health effects

Climate change and increasing extreme weather events will have a significant effect on Canadians’ health — much of which we’re already starting to see.

Climate change is resulting in more heat waves and more hot days throughout the year, which Tran says will result in more incidents of heatstroke and heat-related injuries. In July 2018, a record-breaking heat wave has been connected to more than 90 heat-related deaths in Quebec, while just last summer, there were 595 heat-related deaths during the B.C. heat dome.

“[The B.C. heat dome] was actually the largest weather-related mortality event in Canadian history,” says Roy.

Warmer winters also mean that disease-carrying insects haven’t been killed off in the droves that a usual cold Canadian winter would cause, resulting in rising zoonotic diseases. For example, as the geographic range of the blacklegged tick has expanded northward from the U.S., Ontario has begun to see an increase in Lyme disease.

Air pollution will also cause an uptick in health issues like allergies and asthma. In a one-two punch from climate change, the increase in wildfires (like those seen in B.C. and Ontario last summer) caused by hotter, drier conditions will also translate into more serious air pollution, such as ash and other fine particulate matter, that contribute to lung disease if inhaled.

“This is something that will affect the extremes of age — children, babies, the elderly, those who have previous health issues or chronic health issues, they’re going to be most affected by this,” says Tran.

Effects such as the worsening of asthma, and other lung diseases like emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, will be other impacts felt by increasing air pollution, says Roy.

Climate change also has mental health implications: from general eco-anxiety to experiencing first-hand trauma from forest fires or drought. Evacuations or loss of homes, belongings and businesses — like we saw during the California wildfires last summer — will also take its toll and impact the health-care system.

“It could be depression, anxiety, increased use of recreational drugs or alcohol, sort of what we’re seeing with the COVID pandemic,” says Tran.

Marginalized Canadians will feel it most

“Within Ontario itself, typically the worst hit communities when it comes to wildfire exposure would be Indigenous communities,” says Roy. “But we also know that breathing [in] poor air with these types of pollutants, lower socioeconomic and marginalized populations, even in urban areas, are exposed to this type of air at higher concentrations.”

She also points out that drought and fires strains agricultural production, a troublesome concept as grocery store prices are already on the rise. More expensive produce makes it difficult for all Canadians to access healthy, fresh food — especially those who are already feeling the pinch from the rising cost of living.

How to push back against climate anxiety

Dealing with the continued uncertainty of COVID pandemic, clustered with the fallout of various geopolitical crises around the world, there is no doubt that people are emotionally drained. Add in the scary stats from climate reports and it is easy to feel overwhelmed or anxious.

Both Roy and Tran says that taking small, manageable steps have been shown to help reduce anxiety.

“People have a right to feel exhausted and to wonder where they’re going to get that emotional energy to deal with this kind of news about the climate,” says Roy. “Where we can take heart is it’s been shown that taking action at whatever capacity an individual person may have — whether it’s a smallest action in their own personal life or getting the word out to friends and family — … taking action has been shown to be a very good antidote to those feelings of anxiety and exhaustion.”

“These tiny little wins inspire a little bit of hope to keep that flame alive,” says Tran. “Maybe I am going to do something good and maybe this will change things. That hope helps alleviate the anxiety a little bit.”

Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Instagram and Twitter @jonesyjourn.

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