When a group of researchers studying connections between public health and climate change in Canada tried to look into the impact of fracking on Indigenous communities, they made a startling discovery.
"There was not a single study published, ever, on the health impacts of fracking in Canada,” said Courtney Howard, president-elect at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, at a presentation in Ottawa on Thursday.
A comprehensive literature review had been carried out by the library services of the College of Family Physicians Canada, she said — to no avail. “That was about a year ago, and I'm not aware of anything that has been published since."
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process used by the fossil fuel industry to inject a high-pressure mix of water and toxic chemicals into rock in order to release gas trapped underground.
The National Energy Board predicts an explosion of fracking activity by 2040, adding to Canada's many current sites. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found scientific evidence that fracking harms drinking water in "some circumstances," Reuters reported last December.
Howard was speaking as a co-author of the Canada brief of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. The Lancet Countdown is a global, interdisciplinary partnership of 24 academic institutions and intergovernmental organizations, organized by the influential Lancet medical journal.
The yearly report, the first of its kind, is intended to track the connections between public health and climate change. It emanated from the Lancet's scientific conclusion that climate change is the "biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
It also warns that Canada's push to phase out coal-powered electricity shouldn't come with a phase-in of natural gas to replace coal plants. It notes that methane, the primary component in natural gas, is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
It also notes that an increased proportion of natural gas is being produced via fracking, "for which evidence is accumulating of negative impacts."
"One public health hazard should not be exchanged for another,” the report states.
Climate change will affect health 'for centuries'
Health is connected to climate change in many ways, the researchers said: permafrost melt is damaging infrastructure; there are increased heat- and water-related diseases and deaths; food security and clean water is increasingly threatened; there are increased health impacts from severe storms and floods; and more.
“Human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal, potentially irreversible and affecting the health of populations around the world today,” said the Canadian Public Health Association in a press release.
The association launched the Canada brief of the report at a Nov. 2 presentation at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, based in Ottawa.
"We're doing this here at CHEO, at a children’s hospital, because what we're doing today to the planet is going to affect the health of people for centuries,” said Trevor Hancock, professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria and a co-author of the Canada brief.
"There are massive inequalities in health" when it comes to climate change, he said, as the transition will disproportionately impact Indigenous communities and low-income countries. "We need to be thinking about the health impacts on vulnerable people."
The Lancet group expects to publish updates, including recommendations for regions, between now and 2030.
Health Canada has said there is "growing evidence" that climate change is "affecting the health and well-being of citizens in countries throughout the world, including Canada." A major issue being examined is "longer and more intense heat events that can be dangerous for the health of Canadians."
The department says it has identified seven categories of climate-related impacts on health: heat waves or cold snaps; floods or droughts; air pollution; contamination of food or water; bacteria and viruses; skin damage from ultraviolet rays; and socio-economic impacts like increased demand for health care services.
"As an illustration, severe weather events can result in loss of income and productivity, relocation of people, increased stress for families, and higher costs for health care and social services," the department states.
Asked to comment on the report and its recommendations, departmental spokeswoman Tammy Jarbeau said Canada recognizes that climate change is impacting the health and well-being of vulnerable populations such as Indigenous peoples, children, seniors, and those with chronic illnesses.
"Health Canada welcomes the perspectives provided by the Canadian Public Health Association and Lancet Countdown and looks forward to reviewing the report in detail," said Jarbeau.
"The department is open to all input on the health impacts of climate change, especially those input that helps to advance the dialogue and produce results."
The 'adverse impacts' on Indigenous wellbeing
The report states that the rapid development of the oilsands and fracking has “generated a research lag regarding potential direct health impacts on local populations.”
“This is particularly relevant with regards to Indigenous communities, some of whom now express concerns that landscapes are fragmented to the extent that their traditional way of life is no longer possible, with adverse impacts on their culture and wellbeing.”
"One of our recommendations is to increase funding for research into the local health impacts of resource extraction, with a focus on the impact on indigenous populations,” said Howard.
“Related to that, we need to start integrating health impact assessments into our environment assessment process.”
Canada warned not to replace coal with gas
The report makes it clear that Canada needs to keep its coal power phase-out commitment in order to help save thousands of premature deaths, emergency room visits, hospitalizations and asthma episodes.
It calls on Canada to stick with its coal-powered electricity phase-out by 2030 “or sooner” and for the country to replace that with “at minimum two thirds of the power replaced by non-emitting sources.”
That requires coal-powered electricity sources, which currently create 44 per cent of global emissions, to be replaced with cleaner sources.
But that shouldn't be natural gas, the researchers warn. Methane has 84 times the potency of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, the report notes, "leading to near-term [climate] warming risks."
Canada has a plan to cut methane emissions 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025, but those regulations were pushed back from earlier plans.
“It is important to minimize the amount of natural gas used to replace coal-power,” states the report.
Climate slowing productivity, spreading disease
Canada says it will cut its carbon pollution 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 as part of its Paris Agreement commitments.
But the United Nations recently panned Ottawa for having insufficient policies to meet that target, as the country will miss the 2030 mark by over 40 million tonnes of emissions even if it achieves all its stated goals.
The report puts the global picture in stark terms. It concludes that meeting the Paris commitment globally will require emissions to peak within the next few years and move to negative emissions after 2050.
“This can be thought of as needing to halve [carbon dioxide] emissions every decade,” it states.
Kris Murray, a lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London and a co-author of the international Lancet Countdown report, said his research work on the project showed that climate change has slowed productivity and spread disease.
Global labour capacity has dropped by 5.3 per cent in populations exposed to temperature change between 2000 and 2016, he said.
Meanwhile, the disease transmitting ability of two versions of dengue, the virus that causes dengue fever, a mosquito-borne tropical disease, rose by 9.4 per cent and 11.1 per cent thanks to climate warming trends since the 1950s.
Group calls for national transport strategy
The Canada portion of the report calls for developing a “national active transport strategy” for the country, and to boost support for telecommuting and telehealth options.
The report found that Vancouver, for example, was one of the best cities in Canada for the ratio of private transportation to public transit and active transit like walking and cycling — yet one of the worst cities internationally.
“Moving from private motorized transport to public transport, walking and cycling in urban areas helps to decrease emissions from vehicles, as well as having substantial health benefits,” the report states.
“Commuting on foot or by bike has been shown to decrease cardiovascular mortality, and cycling has been shown to decrease all-cause mortality and mortality from cancer.”
'Try a lentil'
The report also calls for health-sector support for Health Canada’s draft healthy eating guidelines, in order to coax Canadians away from meat protein, and toward plant-based protein sources.
Eating meat is associated with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use, the researchers said, and plant-rich diets have been shown to decrease colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease risk, among other benefits.
"We're not saying you need to go cold turkey,” joked Howard, which got some giggles from the room. “But try a lentil."
Editor's note: this story was updated at 4:01 p.m. ET to correctly attribute a quote about lentils. It was updated again at 5:16 p.m. to add a comment from Health Canada.