Environment and Human Health
With leaders of over 190 countries discussing global climate in Paris this month, unprecedented floods wrecking havoc in Chennai since last week, smog engulfing the Chinese capital Beijing right now, and air quality charts of Delhi showing that the air we are breathing is choking our lungs and hearts, I would have to be quite an ostrich to write about any other health issue this week.
The health consequences of the Chennai floods that have killed over 200 people is just the tip; what is of greater concern is the wave of infections especially diarrrhoeal diseases, typhoid, pneumonias, malaria, dengue, skin infections and stress that are to follow. Further the floods have devastated the lives of several million and sent shivers down our spines by reminding us that some freak natural disaster could usurp our lives just as it did to Uttarakhand a couple of years ago.
One of the core issues is the amount of green-house gases emitted in to the atmosphere due to the use of fossil fuels such as coal, diesel, kerosene, petrol and CNG. This topic makes headlines and forms the top item in the agenda for inter-governmental discussions. These gases comprising carbon dioxide and methane, warm up the climate, making ice caps melt, that in turn push up sea levels and unusual weathers causing untimely heavy rains and floods.
Another issue is air-pollution and the effect it has on our lungs and hearts. “People think the talks are about protecting the environment, plants, animals,” explained Dr Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and the Environment Department at the World Health Organisation, during a sessions in Paris recently. “But it’s as much about human health”
Some of the effects of climate change that can affect our health are strikingly apparent. During the recent Beijing smog for instance, the air quality index that measures small particulate matter was 611 (a value above 300 means that the entire exposed population is at risk of ‘serious’ health effects) forcing the Chinese government to shut schools and some of its factories. And the air in Delhi has been reported to be 5 times worse at 2000 and we are still going about our lives in our “bindaas” ways!
Particles in the air we breathe enter our lungs and cause chest congestion, cough, asthma and breathlessness. In the long term they can also cause lung cancers, often seen in women who use fossil fuels for their ‘chulhas” or stoves in closed kitchens.
Particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns are called “small particles” and can be even more dangerous. They can enter the bloodstream from the the respiratory tracts and reach all parts of our body. They can damage small blood vessels causing injury to heart and brain, and can also cause a variety of cancers.
The number of health issues linked to climate change are too many to enumerate.
And while global climate has indeed changed through the earth’s history, what is making the present crisis unique is that it is our “behaviour” that is causing the trouble this time.