Last week we had an amazing webinar talking with three health experts.
Mariana Veras, from the Laboratory of experimental Air Pollution – Sao paulo School of Medicine
and Alice McGushin, from The International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA)
Together, they provided insightful background on health and climate change, from their expertise and their own experience. We hope you find this useful to write your articles!
Here’s a Summary for you!
Why should we stop burning fossil fuels from a health perspective?
We need to break free from fossil fuels because we can do better. It is clear that energy access provides a lot of benefits to health, and that is one of the arguments that is thrown against our arguments against coal. Coal is the cheapest, most readily available energy source for providing electricity to millions of people on the world. And there is a lot of health impacts on not having electricity, not having cooking fuel, adequate health service.
We now know that is actually not true to call coal and other fossil fuels cheap. It is no longer a matter of having the science or the evidence, but a matter of political will to go about this transition. Last year there was a landmark report by The Lancet, which is one of the leading medical journals. It summarized the evidence on climate change and health, and that was one of their messages.
Dealing with climate change is one of the greatest opportunities for global health in the 21st century.
By breaking free from fossil fuels and going with this transition you will have co-benefits. You will not only prevent catastrophic climate change, that has many health impacts, but also will have co-benefits, meaning immediate reductions in air pollution, reductions in water pollution. And those have impacts in terms of livelihoods, people’s homes.
The trajectory that we are on is not fast enough in order to provide a clean energy future for the future generation.
From the health perspective we can separate the effects of burning fossil fuels in direct and indirect effects. When we burn fossil fuels we do not only produce greenhouse gases but also particles, and in terms of health, these particles are very dangerous. They enter our body and can be distributed to different organs, affecting respiratory health, cardiovascular system, reproductive health and also the nervous system. In the indirect effects we can include the difference in temperature, that can have serious impacts on health, mainly in elderly and also in children.
If we do not stop burning fossil fuels the health impacts will continue to grow and to impact on current and future generations.
Can you think of different examples on how climate change/air pollution is affecting or will affect our health?
Air pollution does not only affect our respiratory system, but it can also exacerbate other health problems, like asthma. During the winter season of Brazil, where the levels of air pollution increase, we have increases in the hospital admissions for asthma and other respiratory problems. In the cardiovascular system, in periods where there are increasing levels of particles, we can see heart attacks, hypertension, stroke, arrhythmia and many others.
From the reproductive health we have seen that exposure of air pollution decreased the fertility and also impacts the fetus development. In the nervous system, pregnant women exposed to air pollution are prone to have children with hyperactivity, autism and difficulty to learn.
Coal is also an emitter of mercury, and that contaminates waterways with metal mercury. That ends up in food through fish that people consume, also has effects on pregnant women and in the development of children.
In terms of occupational health, the whole process of fossil fuel extraction, transport, combustion and disposal is a lot more dangerous for workers in that industry. The International Labour Organisation has a set of standards, and then there’s national standards and maybe local standards. Unfortunately it is very easy for these standards not to be strong enough or not to be enforced. We all heard about the tragedies of workers in mines, but also there are more insidious health effects, because of the dust of the mines, risk of injury, noise, and other occupational hazards involved. By moving to cleaner energy choices, there’s an opportunity to improve occupational health as well.
There’s 7 million people who die prematurely because of the health effects of air pollution. Last year, WHO released a report on the health impacts of environmental pollution, and again the result was that the environment is really important for health.
Some of the issues we have seen are not just related to air, but where does pollutants end up in water or sometimes in the coal production pipeline, there’s leaks in the pipeline, and then. So you have effects on water, sediments, soil, that are direct impacts to the communities that rely on that water, if it’s for drinking, recreation or livelihoods.
Air, water and land are very important when it comes to health.
Are there different impacts on our health depending on the energy that is being used?
Coal is the most obvious energy source when it comes to health, and we know because there is by far the most evidence. There is less evidence but a lot of concern regarding the use of fracking and the impact that the actual extraction has on people’s health. As far as we are concerned, there is not enough studies or information looking at those health impacts.
In terms of injuries, illnesses and death per km/h, solar and renewable energies have far less impact. Of course no industry is without harm, but there is far less with renewable sources.
The toxicity of biofuels is less compared with fossil fuels, but the production of these biofuels, like sugarcane for producing biofuels, also produces two big problems. One, deforestation for the sugarcane crops and before harvesting is common to burn all the crops, so we produce a lot of smoke twice a year. The impacts on health for people in the cities around these crops is really huge.
We tried to change the law in Brazil, prohibiting these crops to be burned before harvesting, but it changed very little.
We also have a lot of hydroelectric energy, but now we are having water scarcity and we are reactivating our coal plants.
We recently produced a guide on health impacts of energy choices. One of the pages in the guide is a comparison chart of the health impacts of energy choices. We cannot definitely treat any of the lowCO2 energy sources as panaceas to providing healthy energy. We have to look at the various dimensions of health.
In the US we are well on our way to phase out coal, but a lot of our energy has been replaced by natural gas. And there’s a huge expansion in fracking, and there’s now evidence of massive leakages in methane which is a very potent climate pollutant, and also has local health impacts. It is also very water intensive, so affects water quality and access, and uses a lot of toxic chemicals which can contaminate water.
In terms of hydroelectric, especially large dams, there is a lot of issued with displacement of population, and that needs to be considered. It is not only the direct health impacts, but also how resilient is this energy system to climate change. If we are now facing water scarcity, which is exacerbated by climate change.
How are communities responding to the threat of climate change and air pollution?
Medical students around the world have been taking action on climate change and health.Through educating their peers, the public, going to local governments, to national governments, encouraging them to phase out fossil fuels and to take stronger action on climate change.
As medical students with a passion for fossil fuels and health and climate change, most of our knowledge has been informal and self-taught, through reading reports, reading papers, attending workshops and conferences. What we found is that there is not much information out there that is really accessible for young people and young professionals. We feel very strongly that everyone should have awareness and understanding of the health impacts of climate change. And also have the confidence to take this knowledge and act upon it, through advocacy and encouraging change.
So we developed this manual on climate change and health. It looks at the health impacts of climate change, the science, the health co-benefits and opportunities that arise from action on climate change, and has a section looking at different ways to educate others: to run workshops, how to run a campaign…
It is really trying to bring together health professionals and use their voice. Taking the voice and the trust that the health sector has within societies to engage with communities, to engage within you own sector and with policy makers.
In the climate and health alliance in Australia they have done a ton of work in policy advocacy, including talking to parliamentarians about a coal mining moratorium. In india our partners have been organising lectures/ site visits between public health and medical schools. So students and professors are introduced to the health impacts of energy choices in a lecture format, and then in the afternoon they go to a site to visit communities that are directly affected. As a result they were able to organise health experts to write public commentaries and op-eds in response to the new emissions rules for coal fired power plants.
In the Philippines we are trying to engage with their department of health, doing health impacts assessment on projects that are in environmentally critical areas.
In South Africa they are doing something similar: trying to engage health experts in environmental impacts assessment process. Also doing community outreach, they produced a documentary on the health impacts of coal, and they are going to the communities affected to screen the documentary and raise awareness among the public. Without this narrative, the one that they hear is the one from the coal industry, which is “coal is good for your health and it will give you electricity access”. Unfortunately, those communities are the last ones to experience the access to electricity, instead they are experiencing the pollution that comes along with it first.
We basically try to bridge the gap between the knowledge and the advocacy. And to support communities while bringing up their issues to the level of policy makers.
In our country people are not really concerned about climate change and the health effects of air pollution. We have some initiatives in our cities to reduce the use of cars. People get very angry with bus lanes, bike lanes… people prefer to have their cars and do not think about these things.
But last year we had water scarcity in the whole country, and now the governors and the public sector are starting to think about our future.