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Climate change could bring illness, food poisoning, contaminated water to the region

'There’s recognition within the health unit that climate change poses significant health risks to our population,' said Brenda Armstrong, program manager of health environment at Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit
(via Pixabay)

Climate change could mean more mosquitoes, and the consequences of that go beyond a temporary itchy red welt.

Flooding, forest fires, and increased temperatures are all often-quoted symptoms of climate change. But a Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) action plan has connected climate change with health symptoms, identifying potential health risks and suggesting ways individuals and communities can prepare for what’s coming.

According to a Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Assessment looking into local health impacts of climate change, there will be increased cases of skin cancer, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, food-born illness, contaminated water sources, more allergens in the air, and heat-related illness.

That’s in addition to food shortages, forest fires, drought, flooding, increasingly extreme winter and summer storms, and more blue-green algae blooms.

Brenda Armstrong, program manager of health environment at the SMDHU, said climate change is “a defining public health issue.”

“There’s recognition within the health unit that climate change poses significant health risks to our population,” said Armstrong.

The vulnerability assessment was released in 2017, and represented about a year of work by Armstrong’s department. At the time, Armstrong said only about three or four other health units in the province were working on one. Since then many Ontario health units have undertaken their own assessments.

The assessment looked at six “climate-sensitive” categories including temperature extremes, extreme weather events and natural hazards, air quality, contamination and availability of food and water, infectious disease transmission by insects and ticks, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

According to the report, Simcoe and Muskoka region will see mean temperature increases above a 1990s baseline more drastically during winter, with an increase of 2 C by 2020, 5 C by 2050 and 7.5 C by 2080. Armstrong said those temperature increase can lead to many public health risks, including an increase in food poisoning cases.

“We already know we see a lot more food poisoning in the summer,” said Armstrong, adding a longer summer season will encourage a longer barbecue and outdoor party season, which will inevitably lead to more cases of food-borne illness. Additionally, pathogens, such as those that contaminate food, survive better in warmer temperatures.

And speaking of the outdoors, a longer warm season means more time for mosquitoes and ticks to breed. Certain species of ticks carry Lyme disease. Mosquitoes can transmit West Nile Virus. Longer and warmer seasons may also draw mosquitoes migrating from other parts of the world.

“Thanks to the strength of mosquito surveillance in Ontario, we are able to see when we get new vector species,” said Armstrong.

Longer summers and warmer temperatures may also encourage people to spend more time outdoors, and result in more exposure to UV rays.

According to the vulnerability assessment, in Simcoe and Muskoka, basal cell carcinomas are projected to increase by 7.8 per cent in the next 30 years, 13.1 per cent in the next 50 as a result of climate change. Another type of skin cancer – squamous cell carcinomas – is projected to increase by 14.8 per cent by 2050 and by 24.8 per cent by 2080.

Both flooding and drought are predicted symptoms of further climate change. The vulnerability assessment suggests there will be an increase in the number and intensity of extreme precipitation events, meaning more water falling in a shorter amount of time.

In the summer, the precipitation levels will fall, leading to increased drought periods, and that could mean forest fires.

Both more and less precipitation is hard on food and water supplies. Flooding can cause contamination in private wells and source water, and can encourage green-blue algae blooms as the water falls too fast to be absorbed and filtered through the ground. The run-off carries algae, pathogens, and dirt to its final destination. Drought means lean crops and reduced water supply.

Those most at risk to the public health effects of climate change are those already vulnerable or sensitive. The youngest and oldest in a population, those with low income, anyone who struggles with mobility in a way that could isolate them, the precariously housed and homeless, and individuals with pre-existing chronic conditions.

In town, a phenomenon called the Urban Heat Island, refers to higher temperatures in urban areas where asphalt on the roads and roofs absorbs and stores heat. There are negative health effects the more days occur where temperatures do not drop below 20 Celsius at night time.

“From a health perspective, these tropical nights are of big concern,” said Armstrong. “Cooler nights are a big factor with helping populations cope with extreme heat … if the night is cool enough, at least you’re getting some respite and your body has a chance to recuperate.”

According to Armstrong, there has to be two areas of focus for an action plan, some of the plan needs to be prevention and reduction of the factors causing climate change, and some of the plan needs to be building resiliency and adapting to face the effects of climate change. The plan, she said, needs to be a collective effort involving individual and community efforts.

“Climate change is a wicked problem,” said Armstrong. “This isn’t a problem one agency is going to solve. It’s going to have to be collaborative … we have to work with others to make sure adaptation supports are in place.”

Some of the key strategies included in the SMDHU comprehensive climate change action plan include working with municipalities in the region to develop healthy public health policy and reduce gas emissions by encouraging active transportation routes and public transit. The adaptive portion of the plan involves actions such as assessment of stormwater system capacity and using green roofs to reduce the impact of an urban heat island effect.

Mosquito and tick monitoring will be important, and there will have to be more protections and options for the most vulnerable population.

“Many of those things have health benefits anyways,” said Armstrong. “It’s work that is just good for our health.”

The SMDHU will also work to foster research to better identify best practices and ways to adapt to new public health risks caused by climate change.

As individuals, Armstrong said there are both mitigating and adaptive actions to take.

“I think we all have a responsibility to think about our carbon emissions,” she said. “There are simple things we can do such as reducing our energy consumption, reducing how frequently we use our vehicles to travel … switching to more of a plant-based diet … reducing overall waste.”

From the preparation side, Armstrong suggests maintaining private wells to ensure they can withstand heavy rainfalls and flooding without becoming contaminated, flood proofing your home, and preparing your house with an emergency kit.

Simple things like sunscreen and mosquito and tick repellant can also help you prepare for the increased public health risks of climate change.

To read the vulnerability report, click here.


Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter, photographer and community editor.
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