How climate change is likely to impact the health of people in Ireland

INCREASED WATER-BORNE DISEASES, higher rates of skin cancer, overheating, injuries from extreme weather events.

These are some of the potential impacts that climate change will have on the health of Irish people, as temperatures rise and the country faces hotter, wetter and more unpredictable weather.

According to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is already having a disruptive effect on the lives of people around the world.

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the working group behind the latest IPCC report.

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to ensure a livable future.”

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned last week that the past seven years have been the warmest on record, global sea levels hit a new record high in 2021 and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have reached record levels.

Human well-being is already suffering. In northern India and Pakistan, a scorching heat wave since late April has been seen as a serious threat to people’s health, with authorities warning of severe water shortages.

UNICEF, the United Nations’ humanitarian organization for children, recently said the climate crisis was among the factors that have exacerbated a global child malnutrition emergency.

While Ireland remains sheltered from the worst effects of the climate crisis, there are warnings that as the planet continues to warm, people’s health here will suffer.

Negative health effects

In a 2017 report on the potential effects of climate change in Ireland, researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the country was likely to see the following:

  • Increased impacts related to heat waves
  • Reduced impacts of cold weather
  • Increase in food-related problems
  • Increase in flood-related problems
  • Increase in waterborne diseases
  • Increase in respiratory diseases due to changes in pollen and pollutants

In a separate 2019 report, the Department of Health said the potential health effects are broad and may include “…deaths, injuries, respiratory illnesses, heat stroke, poisoning, illnesses waterborne, infectious diseases, undernutrition, mental illnesses. diseases.”

According to Dr Ina Kelly, chair of the HSE’s Public Health Medicine Environment and Health Group, the potential impacts on people will be widespread.

“Air pollution is still likely to continue during climate change as heat waves are expected and they are likely to become longer and more severe,” she said. The newspaper.

“During heat waves, there will be forest fires, for example, where a lot of burning can happen and people in an area will be really exposed to the resulting air pollution.”

Overheating will also become more common during heat waves, Dr Kelly said, as well as people with more exposure to the sun.

“If the weather is nicer, people will get more exposure to the sun – they will get out in the sun more.

“So it’s important that they are aware that many of us have skin types that are very vulnerable to skin cancer…so we have to think about not letting our skin get burned.”

Water contamination and bad weather

As well as heat waves, Dr Kelly said climate change could lead to an increase in the prevalence of waterborne illnesses in Ireland, such as those caused by E-coli bacteria.

Ireland already has the highest rate of verotoxigenic E-coli in the EU, which can cause serious illness, especially in children under five and the elderly. The bacteria originates in the intestines of sheep and cattle, and one of the most common routes of transmission to humans is through contaminated water supplies.

Some of the potential effects of climate change – including flooding, drought and rising temperatures – could lead to higher prevalence of verotoxigenic E-coli and other harmful waterborne pathogens.

“Floods can move pathogens into water that was previously uncontaminated, and drought is another way of spread as people start to use poorer water supplies,” Dr Kelly said. .

“Furthermore, the longer organisms live in the environment, the more likely they are to be brought somewhere. If they don’t die quickly, they can travel a much longer distance than expected.

“It’s all of those things, and we think with warmer weather, a lot of those organisms may not be killed, they may survive longer in the environment, and they may end up in a water system that we wouldn’t have thought, ultimately. ”

An increase in the number of severe weather events is also expected to continue in coming years, due to climate change, and Dr Kelly said this will have a ripple effect on healthcare.

“Another thing that can happen is severe weather events like storms, the more frequent they are the more likely you are to have major disruptions to our critical infrastructure,” she said.

“And then that can impact how an ambulance can’t get through an area in time, so someone could die because they can’t get to a hospital, for example.”

Mitigation

In addition to the negative effects of climate change on health, experts also point to some of the potential positive impacts that mitigation measures could have on health in Ireland.

In its 2019 research paper, the Department of Health lists a number of bright spots that could emerge as Irish society adapts and tries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These include a reduction in pollutants from household combustion of solid fuels, such as coal or grass, leading to better air quality, as well as a reduction in pollutants from industrial sources.

The report also noted that there could be an increase in the number of people consuming diets composed of low greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in active commuting such as walking or cycling.

These factors can lead to improvements in public health, as the Irish economy and society move away from fossil fuels and strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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In its submission for public consultation for the Government’s 2021 Climate Action Plan, the HSE’s Public Health Medicine Environment and Health Group set out a number of areas to be addressed in terms of health policy and climate action.

This includes ensuring a government approach to ‘health in all policies’, in which the health implications of all policy decisions across the different sectors of the Irish economy are considered.

The group also called for consideration of the impact of climate policies on people’s mental health and for ensuring a just transition away from fossil fuels for the most marginalized communities in Irish society.

“I think we have to make decisions about whether we’re going to leave people behind or not?” says Dr. Kelly.

“And I think as a society we don’t want to leave people behind; from the point of view of health, it is not good, it is very bad. So we cannot afford to leave people with unbearable losses.

“Especially for the basics they need: a roof over our heads, a temperature you can live with, enough clean water and all the basics we all need; food, water, heating, shelter and security.

“Those are all the basics we need, and we need to make sure everyone has them as well.”

This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant program from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are those of the author. The European Parliament has no involvement or responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information see here.

Teresa H. Sadler