Health Canada issues climate change warning

Steve Rennie THE CANADIAN PRESS - Published On Thu Jul 31 2008

OTTAWA–A major Health Canada report (Human Health in a Changing Climate) is warning of a jump in health problems across the country as the planet's climate changes, ranging from more heat-related illnesses and deaths to outbreaks of previously unknown infectious diseases.

A 500-page report released Thursday urges the federal government to act immediately to gird the nation for an onslaught of climate change calamities.

"The findings of this assessment suggest the need for immediate action to buttress efforts to protect health from current climate hazards," it says.

The report forecasts more frequent heat waves will increase the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths and lead to more respiratory and cardiovascular disorders.

Habitual bouts of extreme weather – such as droughts, violent storms, heat waves and cold snaps – are expected to carry a higher risk of injuries, illnesses and stress-related disorders.

Air pollution, including higher levels of ground-level ozone and increased production of pollens and spores, will exacerbate asthma symptoms and allergies. The report says poor air quality will also lead to more heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.

Outbreaks of E. coli, typhoid and other water-borne pathogens are also expected as drinking and recreational water is contaminated by run-off from heavy rainfall.

And the report predicts new infectious diseases – and a comeback of others previously eradicated in Canada – will crop up across the country.

Communities in Canada's North were singled out as being the most vulnerable to climate change. Avalanches and landslides are predicted to become more commonplace, and northern communities will also have to contend with food shortages and less clean drinking water.

One chapter in the report looks at how climate change will affect Quebec, predicting the number of heat-related deaths will rise sharply in the coming decades.

Speaking to reporters at the Conservative caucus retreat in the rural Quebec town of Levis, Health Minister Tony Clement said Canadians will "have to get used to" the gloomy scenario laid out in the report.

"This report makes it clear that if you have bad health outcomes now, you're likely to be more impacted by extreme weather events than if you're at the top of the health ladder," he said.

The report urges Ottawa to do more to help Canadians adapt to climate change. It cites "significant barriers to adaptation" that include a lack of knowledge of health risks and uneven access to protective measures across the country.

Clement touted the tangle of Tory measures that make up the government's plan to lower Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020.

The Conservatives have spent $85.9 million on climate change adaptation programs since taking office, he said.

Pollution Probe's Quentin Chiotti, one of the report's authors, called the report a "wake-up call" for Canadians.

"If there is somewhat of a doom context or feeling ... well, that's because that's what it is," he said.

"It's not because we're making it up. That's what it is. We need to understand and deal with that reality."

The report, titled Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity, was supposed to be released this spring.

In recent weeks, some of the report's authors began to fret it would be quietly tucked away on Health Canada's website with nary a mention by the department.

That's how the government released a major study by Natural Resources Canada earlier this year that addressed the impacts of climate change.

Despite years of research, input from more than 140 experts and $50,000 paid to a public relations firm to choreograph its release, the Natural Resources study was posted online after 5 p.m. on a Friday with no flourish.