Climate change and health: Health effects

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Adapting to the health effects of climate change

Governments, industries, communities and individuals are working to reduce greenhouse emissions. At the same time, there are a variety of actions which can be taken to help minimize the risks to health.

Climate change "adaptation" refers to changes that we can make at many levels to reduce the health impacts from the hazards that a changing climate can generate, such as floods, extreme heat events, air pollution and infectious diseases.

In December 2007, the Government committed to help Canadians adapt to the challenges of a changing climate and its impacts. Several initiatives are underway, which will contribute to reducing health risks. They include:

  • improved climate change scenarios
  • regional adaptation work programs
  • assessment of key vulnerabilities in Northern/Inuit communities
  • climate and infectious health alert and response systems
  • climate change and health adaptation in Northern/Inuit communities

Many of these programs will build on current health policies and practices - such as infectious diseases monitoring and surveillance, and emergency preparedness and response planning.

Assessing the health effects of climate change

Events have illustrated that both developed and under-developed countries can be overwhelmed by climate-related events, and that people living in Canada could be vulnerable. In response, the Government of Canada is assessing the health impacts of a changing climate.

Natural Resources Canada led a national assessment of climate change vulnerabilities, From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007 which discusses current and future risks and opportunities that climate change presents to Canada from a regional perspective.

Health Canada has studied the current and anticipated effects to health of a changing climate and Canada's ability to adapt. An in-depth assessment of this integrated information is reported on in the following publication.

Human health in a changing climate: A Canadian assessment of vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity

Building on the research and findings of the Natural Resources Canada evaluation, Health Canada's assessment reports on the scope and magnitude of the current and potential health impacts of climate change in Canada related to air quality, infectious disease and natural hazards. It also examines Canada's capacity to respond.
If you would like to order a hardcopy version and/or a CD of the assessment report, please contact Health Canada's Publications.

Recognizing that extreme heat events present a public health issue in Canada, Health Canada has launched a three-year heat initiative entitled Developing Heat Resilient Communities and Individuals in Canada. This project will pilot heat alert and response systems, publish a guidebook, and create health care worker guidelines for heat events.

Understanding the health effects of climate change

Climate change is affecting health, and will continue to pose challenges in the future. Because of Canada's large land mass, Canadians can expect a wide range of impacts which will vary from one region to another.

The extent of these effects depends on how quickly our climate changes, and on how well we adapt to the new environmental conditions and risks to health.

How climate change affects the health of Canadians

Health Canada has identified seven categories of climate-related impacts, and the potential effects these can have on health and well-being.

Temperature-related morbidity and mortality
  • Illness related to extreme cold and heat events
  • Respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses
  • Increased occupational health risks
Weather-related natural hazards
  • Damaged public health infrastructure
  • Injuries and illnesses
  • Social and mental stress
  • Increased occupational health hazards
  • Population displacement
Air quality
  • Increased exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollutants and allergens
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Cancer
Water- and food-borne contamination
  • Intestinal disorders and illnesses caused by chemical and biological contaminants
Health effects of exposure to ultraviolet rays
  • Skin damage and skin cancer
  • Cataracts
  • Disturbed immune function

Vector-borne and zoonotic diseases

Changed patterns of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and other pathogens carried by mosquitoesticks, and animals.

Mitigation and health effects

While it is important to adapt to risks to health posed by climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions can also result in health benefits. By decreasing the burning of fossil fuels, we not only lower our emissions of harmful greenhouse gases which may reduce the severity of some of the health effects listed above, but can also lessen the release of toxic pollutants known to affect the health of people and ecosystems.

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