How climate change is likely to impact people’s health in Ireland

AN INCREASE IN waterborne diseases, higher rates of skin cancer, overheating, injuries from extreme weather-based events.

These are some of the potential impacts climate change will have on people’s health in Ireland, as temperatures rise and the country faces warmer, 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 across the world.

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet,” said Hans-Otto Pörtnerco-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 secure a liveable future.”

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

Human wellbeing is already suffering as a result. In northern India and Pakistan a blistering heatwave since late April has been deemed a serious threat to people’s health, with officials warning of acute water shortages.

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

While Ireland remains shielded from the worst effects of the climate crisis, there are warnings that as the planet continues to heat up, people’s health will suffer here as a result.

Negative health effects

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

  • Increases in heatwave related impacts
  • Decreases in cold weather impacts
  • Increases in food-related issues
  • Increases in flood-related issues
  • Increases in water-borne diseases
  • Increases in respiratory diseases due to changes in pollen and pollutants

In a separate report from 2019the Department of Health said that potential effects on health are wide-ranging, and may include “…deaths, injuries, respiratory disease, heat stroke, poisoning, water-borne diseases, infectious diseases, undernutrition, mental illness.”

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

“Air pollution is still likely to continue during climate change because heatwaves are expected and they’re likely to become longer and more challenging,” she told The Journal.

“During heatwaves then there will be wildfires, for example, where a lot of burning may occur and people in an area will be really exposed to the air pollution from that.”

Overheating will also become more common during heatwaves, Dr Kelly said, as well as people being more exposed to the sun.

“If the weather’s milder, people will be more exposed to sun – they’ll go out into the sun more.

“So it’s important that they are conscious of the fact that a lot of us have skin types that are very vulnerable to skin cancers… so we need to be thinking about not letting our skin get burnt.”

Water contamination and severe weather

As well as heatwaves, Dr Kelly said climate change could result in an increase in the prevalence of water-borne diseases in Ireland, such as those caused by the E-coli bacteria.

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

Some of the potential effects of climate change – including flooding, drought and increased temperatures – could result in a higher prevalence of verotoxigenic E-coli and other harmful water-borne pathogens.

“Flooding might move pathogens into water that wasn’t previously contaminated, and drought is another way they might spread, as people start using less good water supplies,” said Dr Kelly.

“As well as this, the longer organisms live in the environment the more likely they are to be brought somewhere. If they don’t die quickly then they may travel a much longer distance than you would expect.

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

An increase in the number of severe weather events is also likely to continue in the coming years, as a result of climate change, and Dr Kelly said that this will have a knock-on effect on healthcare.

“Another thing that can happen are severe weather events like storms, the more frequently you have those the more likely you are to have major disruptions in our essential infrastructure,” she said.

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

Mitigation

As well as the negative health effects from climate change, experts also point to some of the potential positive impacts that mitigation actions may have on health in Ireland.

In its 2019 research paper, the Department of Health lists a number of positives that may emerge as Irish society adapts and attempts to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

These include a reduction in pollutants from household solid fuel combustion, such as coal or turf, 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 people consuming diets made up of low greenhouse gas emissions, and an increase in active travel such as walking or cycling.

These factors may lead to improvements in public health, as the Irish economy and society moves away from fossil fuels and works to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

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

These include ensuring a “Health in All Policies” approach to government, in which the health implications of all policy decisions across the various sectors of the Irish economy are taken into account.

The group also called for the impact of climate policies on people’s mental health be taken into account, and to ensure 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 are going to leave people behind or not?” said Dr Kelly.

“And I think as a society we don’t want to leave people behind; from a health perspective that’s not good, that’s very bad. So we can’t afford to be leaving people with losses that are unbearable.

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

“They’re all the basics that we need, and we need to make sure that everybody’s getting them, too.”

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 the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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