According to the World Health Organisation, climate change is the single biggest health threat that humans are facing.
Even if you don’t feel directly impacted by the effects of climate change, your health may still be indirectly at risk in several ways.
Here’s what you need to know about the impact of climate change on your health and what you can do to protect yourself.
What is climate change?
Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns caused by increases in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
While climate change can occur naturally, much of the dramatic climate changes we’ve experienced in recent years is the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.
This burning of fossil fuels generates greenhouse gas emissions that get trapped in the sun’s heat and raise temperatures. This is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’. Because of this, we’ve seen higher temperatures, rising sea levels and a decline in the diversity of plant and animal life in regions all around the world.
As Australians, we're experiencing extremes in temperatures as well as more extreme weather events such as bushfires, floods, heatwaves, droughts and tropical cyclones.
How does climate change impact your health?
Changing climate conditions can impact human health in several direct and indirect ways. These include:
- Heatwaves and rising temperatures — Extreme heat events can trigger heat stress conditions, such as a heat stroke, heat exhaustion and respiratory problems. It may also trigger heart attacks for people with heart conditions.
- Natural disasters and extreme weather events — Floods, droughts, bushfires, natural disasters and other extreme weather events can lead to injuries and death. They can also worsen people’s illnesses or health conditions.
- Airborne allergens and air pollutants — Higher temperatures can increase pollen production, which causes hay fever and can worsen asthma. An increase in air pollutants can also cause lung disease and other respiratory problems.
- Foodborne diseases — Viruses, bacteria and parasites multiply easier in high temperatures. This has led to a rise in the spread of more foodborne diseases like gastroenteritis.
- Waterborne disease — Climate change indirectly impacts water quality in many ways. Heavy rainfall and floods, for example, can cause sewage overflows that contaminate drinking water supplies. This can cause disease outbreaks.
- Diseases spread by mosquitos and other insects — As temperatures increase, diseases such as Ross River fever, dengue fever and Japanese Encephalitis (which mosquitoes and other insects transmit) become more widespread.
- Stress, anxiety and other mental health issues — Recent years have seen a significant rise in climate-related grief, depression, stress and anxiety. The feelings of fear, uncertainty and helplessness many people experience are linked with the direct impact of climate-related weather events, concern about future threats and the environment, and distress around a threat to civilisation as we know it.
Who is most at risk of health effects due to climate change?
While no one is immune to the effects of climate change, some people are more at risk of experiencing health issues as a result.
- older people
- pregnant women and their unborn babies
- people with disabilities or chronic health conditions
- socioeconomically disadvantaged communities
- Indigenous communities
If you're in any of these groups, it’s important to protect your health and be aware of any symptoms that may arise.
How can I protect my health from climate change?
While climate change has the potential to make us all feel a little helpless, it’s important to remember that there are steps you can take to ensure you stay healthy and well.
Here are 5 simple actions you can take each day:
- Get prepared for extreme heat and temperature conditions — Be aware of the changing weather conditions in your area and take precautions during high temperatures. During extreme heat, stay indoors and plan your outdoor activities for cooler periods of the day. When outside, stay well hydrated. Wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher), a hat and loose, lightweight clothing.
- Aim to lower your exposure to air pollution — Be aware of the air pollution levels in your area by regularly checking the air quality index (AQI). The most common sources of outdoor air pollution are emissions caused by motor vehicles, solid fuel burning and industry, for this reason, people living in major cities or industrial areas should avoid spending too much time outside if the AQI is high. If you live in a town or city, avoid exercising near busy roads, limit the amount of time that you do and aim to do less intense activity such as walking instead of running. Aim to regularly ventilate your home to remove indoor pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and moisture.
- Practise good hygiene and food safety measures — Foodborne illness, often referred to as food poisoning, is generally caused by having food or drinks that bacteria, parasites or viruses have contaminated. It’s important to practise good hygiene by regularly washing your hands to decrease your risk of food poisoning. You should also take food safety precautions such as washing or peeling fruits and vegetables before eating them, cooking meat thoroughly and keeping your kitchen and food preparation spaces clean and hygienic.
- Protect yourself from mosquito bites — Mosquitoes become most active at dawn and dusk, and into the evening. Take care during these times to reduce the risk of being bitten. Wear a mosquito repellent containing DEET (diethyltoluamide), PMD (picaridin or p-menthane-3,8-diol), also known as oil of lemon eucalyptus and protective clothing that covers as much of your body as possible. Place mosquito-proof mesh on doors, windows, vents and chimneys to help stop mosquitos from entering your home. Ensure you're up to date with vaccinations that help to reduce the risk of disease transmission from mosquitos.
- Take care of your mental health and wellbeing — There are a number of ways in which you can take care of your mental health. Stay physically healthy, get adequate sleep, spend time with people who care about you, make time for enjoyable activities and get into nature. If you feel that your mental health is impacted, you should seek help from a professional. For support and more information on how to manage your mental health, visit Beyond Blue.
What lifestyle changes could I make?
In addition to these practical steps, you can also make changes in your life that help to lessen the impact of climate change on the environment.
These practices include:
- sourcing locally produced foods
- reducing food wastage at home
- using active transport such as walking or cycling
- reducing your use of single-use plastic
For more information
- Discover more about the health impacts of climate change from Doctors for the Environment Australia.
- Learn how to talk to your kids about natural disasters.
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