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Climate change puts Canadians in danger, doctors say



A new report from one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world states that Canada’s refusal to cut greenhouse gas emissions does not just kill the planet, but kills Canadians.

A report on the impact of climate change on health, published Wednesday in the Lancet, concludes that a successful solution to climate change would be the most important step governments can take to improve human health this century.

The report says that chronic exposure to air pollution from greenhouse gas emissions contributes to the death of 7142 Canadians per year and 2.1 million people worldwide.

Heat waves, forest fires, floods and large storms cause more deaths and long-term illnesses, but little data is available on how much.

The first recommendation in the report is simply to track the number of heat-related diseases and deaths in Canada, which is not done at all in most provinces.

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The 2018 fire season is the most devastating in California history, while there are a total of 7,579 fires.

Last summer, public health officials in Quebec reported that 90 people died during the heat wave. Southern and Eastern Ontario experienced the same heat, but Ontario does not track heat-related deaths, so no one knew how many people were affected in the province.

Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency doctor from Yellowknife, who wrote the Canadian section of the report, said bluntly that the world is at a pace of temperature growth with which we cannot adapt, which leads to more deaths and diseases.

The average surface temperature in the world is already about 1 degree higher than in the pre-industrial era, and if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at current levels, by the end of the century this increase will be from 2.6 to 4.8 degrees, she said.

“We are not sure that we can adapt to this in such a way that we can maintain the same civilizational stability and health care systems we are used to,” Howard said.

"We are not only talking about maintaining the level of morbidity, we are talking about our ability to provide medical care."

Small particles of airborne contaminants cause premature death from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, acute respiratory infections and chronic lung disease. More frequent heat waves contribute to heat stroke and more intense pollen seasons, which can exacerbate allergies and asthma, as well as forest fires.

"We are not sure that we can adapt to this in such a way that we can maintain the same civilizational stability and health care systems we are used to", Dr. Courtney Howard, emergency doctor from Yellowknife.

Warmer temperatures also help insects thrive, which means more disease caused by bugs. The incidence of Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks, increased by 50 percent only in 2017.

Howard said the new term for mental health professionals is “environmental anxiety” describing mental stress caused by climate change, or even just the threat they may have.

The secretary of state said that public health officials must adapt their responses to hazards such as forest fires, because the increased intensity and frequency of fires means that more communities have bad air.

Most health authorities will advise people to stay indoors on smoky days, but when these periods last for weeks, this is not a sustainable solution.

Mark Brucel through Getty Images

Floods are also increasing.

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In San Francisco this month, the smoke from wild fires made the air one of the most dangerous in the world. Doctors told people to stay and wear masks if they absolutely had to go out.

Howard said that work is currently underway to improve smoke forecasting, so people can be told when they can expect to go outside and safely exercise the sun's rays during long smoke warnings.

She said the last few years had warned Canadians about what climate change would look like, with record seasons of forest fires in British Columbia in 2017 and 2018, drought on the prairie, heat in central Canada and flooding in communities almost from coast to coast . She said that some people think that this is a new normal, but it is not.

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“It will be worse in 10 years,” she said.

Howard said that if we do not increase our efforts, there will be a massive change in the world, including a large number of wars and migration.

“I’m an emergency doctor and I’m working on this because it’s an emergency,” she said.

Both the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association say they agree with the findings and recommendations of the Lancet.

“Health professionals see first hand the devastating health consequences of a changing climate,” said Dr. Giji Osler, President of the Canadian Medical Association.

“From forest fires to heat to new infectious diseases, we are already considering the health effects of climate change,” she said.

"This is the imperative of public health of our time."

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