How Climate Change is Making You Sick
Canada is heating up twice as fast as the world’s average—and the climate change crisis is already affecting our physical and mental health.
Your health is already at risk
All over the world, people are facing health hazards that are directly linked to climate change. And according to a 2017 United Nations report that explores the worsening human-health impact of this crisis, we’re losing ground every year. If we fail to reverse this trend, we’ll see a marked increase in deaths by 2030.
As Canadians, we should be singularly alarmed, as we’ll confront a broad range of climate disasters. “We’re a very large country, with a lot of different geography and geology. We have floods in Quebec and fires in Alberta,” says Dr. Bradley Dibble, a cardiologist in Barrie, Ont.
According to a major Environment and Climate Change Canada report released in April, our country is heating up twice as fast as the world’s average. Yet a 2017 Health Canada poll found that over half of the population doesn’t believe that climate change is currently threatening our health and our lives.
They’re wrong. This environmental emergency is making Canadians sick in ways many of us never predicted. Some groups are especially vulnerable, such as the very young or old, those with existing medical conditions and those who live on the margins due to socioeconomic factors. But none of us is safe.
“The climate crisis is ultimately going to be a health issue,” notes Dibble. “The planet will survive, and some species will survive, but the human species will be in real jeopardy in coming decades.” That’s because your health is already at risk in multiple ways.
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Your breathing is compromised
Any time we burn fossil fuels, we’re pumping fine particulate matter from oil, gas and other toxins into the air. “Some of these carbon particles can persist in the lungs for decades, like soot in a chimney,” says Dr. Don Sin, a respirologist and director of the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
The buildup causes inflammation and can eventually contribute to conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Over 7,000 Canadians died from complications due to poor air quality in 2015. A study in the European Heart Journal earlier this year found that air pollution now kills 8.8 million people worldwide per year—more than tobacco smoking.
Sin adds that women’s lungs seem particularly susceptible to cancer from pollution. Currently, 10,000 Canadian women die of lung cancer every year, and 15 per cent of new cases are people who have never smoked. “In Canada, the number of lung-cancer deaths in female non-smokers will very soon probably outstrip the number of deaths from breast cancer, because lung cancer is so lethal,” he says.
Contributing to air pollution are the 8,000 wildfires we experience every year in Canada, like those that devastated large areas of Alberta this past spring. These are increasing in frequency and intensity with our hotter, drier spells. A study in the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine found that prescriptions for an asthma and COPD drug rose by 22 per cent in the Yellowknife region in the summer of 2014, when it was engulfed by wildfire smoke. The number of ER visits for breathing problems was 42 per cent higher; for children, it more than doubled.
Judy Mori, 69, lives near Vernon, in British Columbia’s Okanagan region, and has interstitial lung disease, which causes scarring and breathing problems. “These last two or three summers of severe fires have been pretty bad,” she says—so bad, in fact, that the sky turns grey, a campfire smell lingers in the air, and some have dubbed the valley “Smokanagan.”
Exposing herself to smoky air could lead to a deadly lung infection, so Mori has to seal herself indoors when her weather-tracking app indicates poor conditions. That can last for weeks. And even if your lungs are healthy, you should avoid breathing in smog or smoke because of potential long-term damage from chronic inflammation.
Another threat to breathing is mould, which is a concern in areas with repeated flooding, such as around New Brunswick’s Saint John River, where floodwaters have infiltrated homes for two years in a row and displaced more than 200 families. Moulds produce toxins and spores that can trigger allergic reactions or infections if inhaled. Rising sea levels and increased urban development, combined with intense rainfalls, mean we will see a lot more of it.
To avoid breathing polluted air, wear a mask rated N95—not a surgical mask, which is useless, says Sin. “Those are too flimsy. They won’t protect you at all from air particles.” On bad-air days, get your exercise indoors, for instance by walking in an air-conditioned mall.
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Your heart can’t pump effectively
“A lot of people don’t realize that all that stuff you breathe also gets into your blood vessels,” says Dibble.
When the cardiovascular system becomes inflamed, plaque can build up in the arteries. This results in worsening cardiovascular disease and more climate-related strokes, with ongoing research suggesting that those with risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension might experience more pronounced effects. According to the European Heart Journal research, up to 80 per cent of those killed by air pollution may actually be dying from heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems.
Hot temperatures are dangerous, too, as they interfere with the regulation of internal temperature through blood flow. “Heat is a stress on the body,” Dibble explains. “It makes it a lot tougher to maintain the right fluid balance.”
While several other countries are achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, Canada increased its emissions between 1990 and 2016, due to activities like driving, heating our homes, manufacturing and mining.
At least 90 people were killed in the heat wave that smothered parts of Quebec last summer. In Toronto, heat is blamed for 120 deaths a year. Children and older people are at higher risk of life-threatening heat stroke because their central nervous systems aren’t as efficient at regulating body temperature. Outdoor workers, people taking certain medications (including diuretics or beta blockers) and people with chronic conditions can also have trouble coping.
“When it’s extremely hot, it affects me vastly,” says Mercedes Jasmine, a Nigerian-born refugee who came to Montreal last year with her young daughter. Jasmine, 37, has been in and out of hospitals most of her life with sickle cell disease, a blood abnormality. Heat can dehydrate her, leading to a painful blood-vessel blockage that requires emergency treatment.
But the single mom, who trained as a physician in Nigeria, can’t afford the air conditioning she critically needs. She’s on social assistance while she upgrades her Canadian skills. “I’m worried,” she admits. “Climate change is real and is affecting everybody, but for the vulnerable people, when it’s too hot, it’s terrible.”
Even people without medical conditions should drink lots of water, lower their activity and wear loose, breathable clothing during intensely hot weather. Air conditioning will lower humidity while cooling you down, but not everyone has it—or a power failure may mean you can’t use it.
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Your immune system can’t fight infection
In 2014, Winnipeg nurse Keri Wizbicki (pictured) was at a salon when the hairdresser suddenly shrieked and jumped away. A blacklegged tick was lodged in her scalp. “The stylist dug it out with her fingers,” says Wizbicki, 38, who had been camping a few days earlier. She didn’t know it at the time, but that tick was likely carrying bacteria and infected her when its body was squeezed.
“It wasn’t long after that things really started to go downhill,” says Wizbicki. She developed pain, fatigue, dizziness and other symptoms that were so severe, her doctors first ruled out a brain tumour and multiple sclerosis. After many months of scans and specialists, she tested positive for Lyme disease in 2016. Wizbicki, who used to ride horses, hike trails and travel around the world, is now on long-term disability leave with symptoms that often flare up just from the exertion of taking a shower.
Over 2,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported nationally in 2017, but the Public Health Agency of Canada acknowledges that the actual number of infections is likely higher. Another tick-borne disease, anaplasmosis, has also been proliferating since tracking began. As Canada heats up, insects that spread diseases can survive in a wider range of habitats.
That’s also why we’re seeing hundreds of West Nile viral infections every year. A large number of patients go undiagnosed or undocumented, but the 200 cases reported in 2017 represent an upswing since 2013, despite control measures put in place.
“Mosquitoes don’t need a passport or visa, and they don’t believe in boundaries,” says Atanu Sarkar, a Memorial University researcher who is studying mosquito-borne diseases. “Climate change is helping mosquitoes spread their territory further and further north, and the virus is moving along with them.”
Sarkar advises people to contact their local public health agencies and ask about specific risks in their regions, but it’s advisable for everyone to use screens in windows and pick up litter outside your home. “Mosquitoes can lay eggs in anything that collects water—a toy left outside or a Tim Hortons cup,” he notes. If you go into the woods, use bug repellent and keep your legs covered.
Climate change poses problems for the immune system in other ways, as well. The one in five Canadians with respiratory allergies should expect to feel more miserable for longer periods of time, as rising carbon dioxide levels cause plants like ragweed to produce more pollen, and warmer temperatures allow other allergenic species, such as hickory trees, to extend their range.
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You don’t get the nutrients you need
Global heating is also taking its toll on our food. Droughts and violent storms that damage crops are growing in frequency. That means sticker shock at northern supermarkets, according to Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room doctor in Yellowknife and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
We’ve been feeling similar effects across the country; Canada’s 2019 Food Price Report estimates that produce costs as much as six per cent more than last year. “Any time food prices go up, there’s another portion of Canadians at the food bank, or just trying to make do with cheaper, less nutritious food,” she says.
For northern residents, melting permafrost is also making it more difficult to physically access food. The thaw in the Northwest Territories’ Mackenzie Valley is 10 per cent deeper than it was 20 years ago. “People are more likely to go through the lake ice, and the permafrost is becoming boggier,” says Howard.
Transportation and hunting are becoming less reliable, and that’s a significant problem if, for instance, your family relies on caribou meat as a source of food. In Canada, about a third of Métis and First Nations people and two-thirds of Inuit people harvest wildlife for food.
“Warmer temperatures mean you can’t get on the snow machines and can’t trap,” says Bernard Stehelin, 48, a commercial bush pilot who was born and raised in Whitehorse. A close friend of his narrowly escaped drowning earlier this year when the ice gave way under his snowmobile, even though he’d travelled this section of ice without incident for 16 years.
It can also be challenging to round up clean water and nourishing food during and after acute climate disasters. Power outages, which are more likely and last longer with extreme weather events, quickly cause food to spoil.
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Your mental health suffers
Fleeing a wildfire or experiencing a flood can provoke anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. “After an acute event, people tend to have the worst mental health symptoms in the first month or so,” says Howard, “but even a year later, some people are still affected.”
In a study, adolescents who lived through the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuations in 2016 had almost double the rates of depression as those in Red Deer, which had been spared. They were also four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Some risks are more insidious. For example, the welfare of Canada’s 200,000 farms is inextricably tied to climate, and farmers are distressed when their crops struggle in dry weather or are wiped out by a single storm— events that can cut yields in half.
A University of Guelph survey in 2015 found that 45 per cent of agricultural producers have high stress, and a majority had anxiety. Over a third had depression. The physical discomfort of a heat wave also worsens mood. A 2018 literature review found an undeniable link between hotter weather and higher risk of suicide. Wildfire smoke even has a psychological impact, says Howard, while other research suggests a link between poor air quality and worsened mental health.
Many Canadians live with an overriding worry about what climate change is doing to our planet—this is known as ecological grief. In a 2015 Environics Institute poll, half of respondents cited a “definite” or “extreme” level of concern. We despair for future generations. An Ipsos poll last year found that almost 60 per cent of us aren’t convinced that our society is capable of reducing carbon emissions enough to make a difference. “This eco-anxiety can lead to panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability and sleep disturbance,” says Dibble.
It’s more dangerous for those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Mathieu Kelly, a 41-year-old farmer in Watrous, Sask., has an anxiety disorder that’s exacerbated during stressful times, which can happen often in a job with long hours, volatile markets and short windows for seeding and harvesting.
“The weather plays into it,” he says. Heavy rains can delay planting, for instance. “This spring, I was stressed about getting the crop in.” He ended up calling the Farm Stress Line, a provincial crisis service, for support. He also copes by taking walks and communicating openly with his wife. “There are tools out there to help you through it.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy may assist some people in managing negative thoughts, and physical exercise can provide a burst of endorphins to lift mood. It can also help to make a few positive changes, like walking your kids to school instead of driving them.
But volunteering in some capacity to help the environment may be one of the most constructive things you can do, says Howard. Kelly has joined a group of like-minded farmers who follow more sustainable practices to manage water and protect the soil.
“We’ve changed our mindset in how we operate our farm,” he says. “Our environment’s always changing, and we’re dealing with mother nature the best we can.”
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