In this second instalment of our #VoteForYourHealth series, we will outline how acting on climate change can bring us many health benefits and protect our health system.
As health professionals in Alberta, we see the health impacts of environmental changes. When floods threaten Calgary or High River, or wildfires displace northern communities, we see the lasting physical and mental health struggles for families.
When air pollution descends in the heat of summer, we treat respiratory conditions and worry about the well-being of isolated seniors. We understand how the environment affects our collective health.
Like the pandemic, climate change is a complex, global problem with very personal consequences. It has led to a highly polarized debate about how urgently to act, and which solutions to focus on.
The truth is climate change is here and it is a health issue now. But there are actions we can take in Alberta to protect ourselves now and in the future.
Access to clean air, like access to quality health care, is something we often take for granted until it’s too late. Most of us in Alberta have had first-hand experience with wildfire smoke: we’ve seen the yellow haze and ash blanketing our communities and felt how awful it is to breathe in that polluted air.
During the 2016 Fort McMurray fire, many firefighters were exposed to such profoundly high levels of toxins that it led to a bill proposing presumptive workers' compensation coverage for firefighters who develop certain cancers after fighting the wildfire.
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The high temperatures associated with extreme heat events such as the deadly heat dome in 2021 took 66 lives in Alberta and over 500 lives in one week in B.C.
Climate change is associated with an increase in these types of extreme events, and Alberta is no stranger to disasters. Out of the top 10 most costly disasters in Canadian history for insurers, seven have been in Alberta.
From rain to hailstorms, floods and fires, the enormous economic toll has impacted us all, including our health. Climate-driven illness is increasing the strain on our overburdened health-care system and it is a direct threat to life. Reducing its impacts needs to be a provincial priority.
In Alberta, air pollution — from industrial and individual burning of fossil fuels, as well as wildfires — causes heart attacks and strokes, diminishes brain and lung function, worsens asthma and allergies, and increases the risk of cancer.
Children are more vulnerable to the damaging impacts of air pollution because of their smaller, developing airways and rapid breathing. A recent Health Canada study on the health impacts of traffic-related air pollution concluded that air pollution caused 1,400 premature deaths in Alberta in 2016 (deaths due to non-accidental causes).
Thankfully, the most effective actions to combat air pollution and climate change are also inherently good for our health, and they fall within provincial jurisdiction. While fossil fuels are not going to go away tomorrow, we need a government with a credible plan to manage the coming transition and adopt solutions that put health at the centre of new change.
This should include improving efficiency in energy production and usage, investing in a faster transition to electrified transportation and improving infrastructure that makes walking, cycling and transit safer, easier and affordable.
As an added benefit, these solutions will reduce traffic-related air pollution and reduce the risks of lung and heart disease. Prioritizing more green spaces with more trees can help relieve the health and financial costs of summer heat waves in communities.
A similar synergy is achieved by a transition to electric from gas stoves, which were associated with one in eight cases of childhood asthma, according to a recent study. The province plays a pivotal role in supporting this transition away from toxic indoor air pollution.
Stronger building codes and regulations can also go a long way to creating healthier, safer homes that use less energy. These are just a few examples of solutions to reduce the health hazards of our changing climate.
Albertans want to protect our land, air and water, and in this election, that message must be sent loud and clear. As health-care providers, we ask that you #VoteForYourHealth by choosing candidates who understand that clean air, and bold action on climate change, is health.
We ask the next government of Alberta to:
- Develop strong policies to ensure we assess and regulate industrial air pollution emission sources. monitor air quality across the province, and alert Albertans when air quality is poor.
- Support a health system that is climate-resilient, adaptation planning, and mandate increased surveillance and reporting of climate-associated illness.
Stephen Wilton is a cardiologist and clinical scientist at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, University of Calgary. He studies the causes and consequences of cardiovascular disease and its treatment and has written about the links between climate change, air pollution and heart disease. Wilton volunteers for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), both for its Alberta regional committee and on national campaigns.
Karina Pillay is a family physician in Calgary who previously served as mayor of the Town of Slave Lake during a major wildfire disaster in 2011. With her disaster management experience and medical knowledge, she wants to raise awareness and drive change to reduce the harmful health impacts of climate change.
We have known about the
We have known about the connection with the air we breathe and how it affects our health for years. Climate change has clearly made things worse whether it is wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and severe storms. All result in some form of health impacting effects.
Governments have known about all this for years, yet drag their feet around air quality and climate change. The only real accomplishment has been fudging the air quality scale to make it look like our air quality is still good.
One of the biggest obstacles to taking action around air quality and climate change is the people themselves. We want action taken, but don't want to pay for it, pay a tax or change our behavior.
I find it kind of comical where our young generation are very vocal about climate change, yet drive gas guzzling pickup trucks, large SUVs and other consumer things that are not environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways, so if you are serious about air quality and climate change, one needs to set an example, not be part of the problem.