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Frank Bures: Health impacts of climate change

February 3, 2019
Dr. Frank Bures

In perusing the contents of the Jan. 17, 2019, New England Journal of Medicine, two articles caught my eye. One was titled “Climate Change — A Health Emergency.” The second was a review article titled “The Imperative for Climate Action To Protect Health.” Having listened, in the past year especially, to the reports of recent catastrophic climatic events, has made me personally sensitive to the medical aspects as well as the social and economic ones.

The premise underlying my short review of a review of a complex issue, somewhat controversial and even contentious in some quarters, is that climate change is real, and is happening now. The purpose of the information is to inform, not to argue any points.

Prepared by two doctors and masters of public health from Massachusetts General Hospital, the perspective has many clear ideas, which are worth quoting. “Disruption of our climate system, once a theoretical concern, is now occurring in plain view — with a growing human toll brought by powerful storms, flooding, droughts, wildfires, and rising numbers of insect borne diseases. Psychological stress, political instability, forced migration, and conflict are other unsettling consequences. In addition, particulate air pollutants released by burning fossil fuels are shortening human life in many regions of the world. These effects ... are fundamentally health issues ... People who are sick or poor will suffer the most.”

The factors which foster climate change, cited in the review, are rising temperatures, more extreme weather, increased CO2 levels, and rising sea levels. Other authoritative sources like the CDC and National Institutes of Health/NIH, etc. list pretty much the same categories of medical problems as the review resulting from these factors.

They include:

Extreme weather events leading to injuries, fatalities, and mental health impacts.Heat related illnesses and death, cardiovascular failure.Air quality and pollution with worsening of asthmas and other respiratory diseases, more allergies, cardiovascular diseases.Poor water quality and quantity, food supply and safety, leading to many diarrheal infections, malnutrition and starvation.Increases in insect transmitted diseases over greater areas like Lyme disease, dengue fever, encephalitis, malaria, West Nile virus, Zika virus, etc.Social factors and environmental degradation from forced migration and civil conflict.

The Massachusetts General docs say the medical care sector accounts for 1/10th of greenhouse emissions and cite groups trying to remedy the carbon and other pollutant production. Kaiser Permanente, Boston Medical Center and Partners HealthCare are cutting emissions and working toward carbon neutrality. “Gundersen Health System achieved energy independence several years ago and produces more energy than it consumes, using wind power, solar power, and methane capture from a local landfill.” It can be done! A school in Copenhagen, Denmark, was built using solar panels over its outer walls entirely.

Our problem is to deal with the corporations of coal, oil, etc., that value profit over people, who disavow climate change for their self interest and greed. “The financial interests of organizations vested in the fossil fuel industry, a federal administration that denies climate science and its own responsibility to act, and inertia are powerful countervailing forces.” The Heartland Institute is one such entity and an industry supported “think tank.” (No tanks.) One-hundred fifty members of Congress have received more than $68,000,000 in donations from fossil fuel companies.

“Financial divestment with support from physicians has been an effective tool in other health movements, including efforts to thwart the tobacco industry. Much like the tobacco industry, fossil fuel companies have used their vast resources to sow disinformation and influence policymakers against the public interest. The American Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners (British) passed resolutions in 2018 calling for financial divestment from fossil fuel companies.” The Canadian Medical Association is fully divested.

Even in the face of the controversy over climate change reality, there are examples of it currently, such as the heat over the North Pole displacing the cold polar air to our upper 48, and the simultaneous record frying heat in Australia at the same time. For all our sakes we need to come together to construct a healthful future for our Mother — Earth — and all her children (us). A song by my favorite composer, “This Wondrous World” ends thus: “Every rock and spring, every living thing in this wondrous world’s creation is a sacred trust. Care for it we must! Every person, every nation.”

For all our sakes we need to come together to construct a healthful future for our Mother — Earth — and all her children (us).

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