Climate change is a threat to environmental health

On the 1 June, Donald Trump confirmed that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. The aim of this climate change pact is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.

In actuality, climate change is affecting Scotland now, with increases in seasonal temperatures, sea level and annual rainfall all being observed. Evidence shows, average temperatures in Scotland have increased in line with global trends, with average annual temperatures around 0.7oC higher than they were a century ago. Annual rainfall over Scotland has increased since the 1970s, to a level 13% above the average for the early decades of the 20th century. Long-term monitoring of sea level at stations around the UK including Aberdeen shows the mean sea level for 2006-2008 was more than 100mm higher than during the 1920s. In addition, experts predict rising sea levels, more powerful storms and droughts, as well as other extreme weather events becoming more disruptive.

While Scotland must continue to play a role as part of the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, steps need to be taken now to prepare Scotland for the impacts of climate change.

There is a growing recognition of the link between climate change and our health and wellbeing. The Evidence Report for the second UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA2), published in July 2016, highlighted the need for more action to manage flood risks, the potential for shortages in public water supply, heat-related impacts on health and wellbeing, risks to the natural environment, and risks to food production and trade. Therefore, it has become one of the biggest threats to public health and affects the very pillars of environmental health: clean water, sanitation, air quality and food.

Apart from the obvious direct health impacts of flooding there is also additional risk posed with increased rainfall and rising sea levels. Severe flooding has the potential to significantly affect drinking water supplies through contamination of mains supply. Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia are found in higher numbers after heavy rainfall. Floods can also increase the risk of rodent- borne disease such as leptioprisosis.

Increased temperatures could see a rise in food poisoning cases and waterborne infections. It has been reported that climate change could cause about 10,000 extra cases of food poisoning each year in the UK (Cooking up a Storm, Tara Garnett, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, 2008. Prof. G. Bentham, Centre for Environmental Risk, University of East Anglia). There is also a strong correlation between notified food poisoning, Salmonella infections and temperatures in the UK.

In addition, pipes and reservoirs are more vulnerable to micro-organisms during frequent droughts. Algal blooms are likely to increase also. Water-associated diseases like Legionnaires’ disease could increase with increased use of air conditioning and humidifiers.

Climate change could lead to new and emerging pest and disease risks. As temperature and rainfall increase this will allow some pests and diseases to extend their range. Though not necessarily caused by climate change, several vector-borne diseases have emerged and expanded in Europe in recent years. These include vivax malaria, West Nile fever, dengue fever, Chikungunya fever, leishmaniasis, Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis.

With Scotland’s climate already changing and further change inevitable, adapting and being resilient to climate change is very important part planning for the future. Environmental health officers can be key enablers and facilitators to the adaption and mitigation of climate change.