World Environmental Health Day addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health.
The theme for the 2019 World Environmental Health Day is “Climate change challenges, time for global Environmental Health to act in unison”.
Climate change destabilises the earth’s equilibrium and has far reaching effects on the environment and human beings.
Climate change is increasing risks to human health and to health systems that seek to protect the safety and well-being of populations.
Direct and indirect health impacts associated with climate change are caused by rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns as well as increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather events.
Direct health impacts arise from hazards such as heat waves, droughts and storms and indirect impacts come from exposures to disease vectors, air and water pollution. Rising carbon dioxide levels, which contribute to climate change, may also reduce the nutrient value in staple crops. This could increase food insecurity among some populations, particularly those in developing countries.
A few health impacts from climate change:
- Power outages in extreme weather could cripple hospitals and transportation systems when needed most.
- Crop declines could lead to undernutrition, hunger, and higher food prices. More CO2 in the air could make staple crops like barley and soy less nutritious.
- Occupational hazards such as risk of heatstroke will rise, especially among farmers and construction workers. Labour could shift to dawn and dusk, times when more disease--carrying insects are out.
- Warmer days, more rain, and higher humidity will produce more ticks, which spread infectious diseases like Lyme disease.
- Trauma from floods, droughts, and heat waves can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and suicide.
- More heat can mean longer allergy seasons and more respiratory disease. More rain increases mould, fungi, and indoor air pollutants.
- Mosquito-borne dengue fever has increased 30-fold in the past 50 years. Three-quarters of those exposed so far live in the Asia-Pacific region.
- Senior citizens and poor children, especially those already afflicted with malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea, tend to be most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.
- Drought and chronic water shortages harm rural areas and 150 million city dwellers. If localities don’t adjust quickly, that number could be nearly a billion by 2050.
- Rising sea levels can threaten freshwater supplies for people living in low-lying areas. More severe storms can cause city sewage systems to overflow.
Many of the health impacts from climate change can be lessened or avoided through well-designed adaption measures. Health adaptation refers to “the process of designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating strategies, policies, and measures intended to reduce climate change related impacts and to take advantage of opportunities”. Health authorities and researchers, from international to local level, recognise the serious threats to health that climate change poses and are taking protective measures to reduce current impacts and future risks.
Environmental Health Practitioners have for decades played a critical role in monitoring and controlling the quality and health of the human environment. They now have an equally important role to play with regards to adaptation strategies and measures to protect communities against the challenges of climate variability at grassroots level. Evidence-based information about current and possible future risks to health, vulnerable populations, and effective adaptation options is needed to prepare individuals and communities for the health impacts of climate change.
This includes identification of innovative adaptations for use by environmental and public health officials to understand and respond to more severe and possibly compounding effects of future climate change, such as threats from tipping points and shock events that are outside of the range of current experience. Greater capacity building that facilitates assessments from local to national and international scales will support collaborative efforts to protect health from current climate hazards and future climate change challenges.