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Climate Change Puts Canadian Health at Risk, Say Doctor

A new report from one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world says Canada's failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions not only killed the planet, but also killed Canadians.

Reports about the health effects of climate change, published Wednesday in The Lancet, concluded that succeeding in overcoming climate change would be the biggest thing the government could do to improve human health this century.

Chronic exposure to air pollution from greenhouse gas emissions activity contributes to the deaths of around 7,142 Canadians per year, and 2.1 million people worldwide, the report said.

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

The first recommendation in this report is only to track the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths in Canada, something that was not done at all in most provinces.

Kevin Key / Slworking through Getty Images

The 2018 fire season is the most destructive record in California, with a total of 7,579 fires.

Last summer, public health officials in Quebec said 90 people were killed in a heat wave. Southern and eastern Ontario suffer from the same heat but Ontario does not track heat related deaths in the same way, so no one knows how many people have been affected in the province.

Courtney Howard, an emergency doctor from Yellowknife, who wrote the Canadian section of the report, said now that the world is at a pace to increase temperatures that we cannot adapt, which results in more deaths and diseases.

The surface temperature of the world average is around 1 C warmer than in the pre-industrial era, and if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current level, the increase will be between 2.6 C and 4.8 C by the end of the century , he says.

"We are not sure we can adapt to that where we can maintain the stability of civilization and the same health care system as usual," Howard said.

"We talk about not only maintaining disease levels, we talk about our ability to provide health care."

The fine particles of pollutants in the air cause premature death from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, acute respiratory infections and chronic lung disease. More frequent heat waves contribute to a more intense heat stroke and pollen season, which can worsen allergies and asthma, as well as forest fires.

"We are not sure we can adapt to that where we can maintain the stability of civilization and the health care system that we are used to," Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency doctor from Yellowknife.

Warmer temperatures also help insects develop, which means more diseases are transmitted through bugs. The incidence of Lyme disease, carried by fleas, rose 50 percent in 2017 alone.

Howard said the new term that emerged among mental health professionals was "eco-anxiety," describing mental stress caused by climate-related changes – or even only the threats they might have.

Public health officials must adjust their response to hazards such as forest fires, because the intensity and frequency of increased fires means more communities have bad air for longer periods of time, Howard said.

Most health authorities will advise people to stay indoors on smoky days, but when that period lasts for weeks, it is not a sustainable solution.

Marc Bruxelle through Getty Images

Floods also increase.

"This is an emergency"

In San Francisco this month, smoke from wild fire makes air the most dangerous in the world. Doctors tell people to stay in it, and wear masks if they really have to go out of the house.

Howard said work was being done to improve smoke forecasting, so people could be told when they could go outdoors and exercise in the sun safely during extended smoke warnings.

He said the last few summers had warned Canada about what climate change would happen, by breaking the record of forest fires in British Columbia in 2017 and 2018, drought in Prairies, heat waves in central Canada, and flooding in communities almost from the coast to beach. He said some people think this is normal new – but not.

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"This will be worse in 10 years," he said.

Howard said if we did not increase our efforts, the change to the world would be very large, including more war and migration.

"I am an emergency doctor and I am working on this because this is an emergency," he said.

Both the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association said they agreed with the Lancet findings and recommendations.

"Health care professionals see first hand the damaging health effects of our climate change," Dr Gigi Osler, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said in a statement.

"From forest fires to heat waves to new infectious diseases, we have treated the impact of climate change on health," he said.

"This is a public health necessity in our day."

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