Climate change and health in Canada

The Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg maintains the Climate Atlas of Canada, and on November 20  launched a new section of their website devoted to climate change and health in Canada.   So far, the webpages provide a general overview of the issues of air quality, diseases, extreme heat, and mental health  – supporteclimate-video.pngd by more detailed  articles – for example,  Climate Change, Air Quality, and Public Health ;  Wildfire Smoke and Health ; and a new 4-minutes video about wildfires, with impactful images which highlight the links between wildfires and mental health,  especially relating to first responders and medical providers.  The Prairie Climate Centre also published the Heat Waves and Health  report, released in August 2019, and now part of the new section.

2019 Lancet Countdown emphasizes climate impacts on children’s health

lancet childrenSince 2016, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet has published an annual report,  Countdown  on Health and Climate Change  .  The 2018 Countdown report focused on  work-related health impacts of climate change, especially heat effects, as summarized in the WCR here . The 2019 edition  just released in early November focuses on the impacts of climate change on the health of children, with this key message: it is possible to limit the global average temperature rise to well below 2ºC, a situation which “would transform the health of a child born today for the better, throughout their lives. Placing health at the centre of the coming transition will yield enormous dividends for the public and the economy, with cleaner air, safer cities, and healthier diets.”

In addition to the global report, the Lancet also publishes country-specific Policy Briefing reports.  The Policy Briefing for Canada  (in French here ) is written in cooperation with the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association.  The four highlighted results for Canada are:

  1.  “Exposure to wildfires is increasing in Canada, with more than half of the 448,444 Canadians evacuated due to wildfires between 1980 and 2017 displaced in the last decade; lancet wildfires
  2. The percentage of fossil fuels powering transport in Canada remains high, though electricity and biofuels are gaining ground. Fine particulate air pollution generated by transportation killed 1063 Canadians in 2015, resulting in a loss of economic welfare for Canadians valued at approximately $8 billion dollars;
  3. Canada has the third-highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions from healthcare in the world, with healthcare accounting for approximately 4% of the country’s total emissions;
  4. The health of Canadians is at risk due to multiple and varied risks of climate change…… An ongoing, coordinated, consistent and pan-Canadian effort to track, report, and create healthy change is required.”

For each of the four problems, broad policy recommendations are made.

Some of the other countries for which Policy Briefs are available: Australia ;  European Union ; the United Kingdom ; and the United States . Each one reflects the unique challenges of the country concerned.  The full menu of all Country Briefs is here.

How nurses can contribute to climate and health justice

Nurses’ Unions, Climate Change and Health: A Global Agenda for Action   was Nurses unions -GNU-Final-Coverwritten by Sean Sweeney, Irene Shen and John Treat of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED). ( A summary appears in the September 2019 Bulletin 90 of the TUED ).  The report provides a brief overview of climate change issues, and an extensive chapter about the human health impacts of climate change. It concludes by outlining six key areas where nurses and their unions “can make use of their expertise and political strength in the fight against the climate and health emergency, and for climate and health justice.” The agenda for action  includes: Resist new fossil fuel projects; Make Emergency Response and Recovery Services “Climate Ready”; Work with Allies at the Global Level on Preparedness; Fight Poverty and Racism. Defend Worker Rights and Protections; Articulate and Advocate for a Pro-Public Shift in Policy; and Extend Public Control Over Energy Generation and Use through Energy Democracy. Although the report was written for nurses’ unions, the authors express the  hope is that it can be useful for the labor movement more generally, “to wage the struggle for climate protection and climate justice with a clearer understanding of the challenges that must be faced in order to achieve it.”

The report was written for  Global Nurses United , a federation of the nurse and health care worker unions which has grown to represent  27 nations since its founding in 2016.  The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec are members from Canada;  National Nurses United is the member from the United States. The purpose of GNU is to fight against austerity, privatization, and attacks on public health, as well as  to work for nurses’ and workers’ rights and improved patient care for all.

Nurses climatechange-cover-368x480The Canadian Federation of Nurses released its own publication in June 2019,   Climate Change and Health: It’s Time for Nurses to Act , “as a starting point for for advocacy and leadership”.  It shares some content with the Global report, but focuses on Canadian examples, and outlines its own six recommendations for action. A summary appears here .

Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .

Canadian nurses’ unions issue a call for action on the climate health emergency

Nurses climatechange-cover-368x480The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) is the umbrella organization representing approximately 200,000 nursing and front-line health professionals in unions across Canada. At their Biennial Convention in Fredricton in June, representatives passed Resolution #3, calling on the CFNU and its Member Organizations: …  to recognize within their position statements that climate change is “a global crisis and health emergency”; …to support sustainable health care practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in health care settings; …to “engage with community stakeholders, such as the Canadian Labour Congress, in initiatives and campaigns that raise the public’s awareness about the serious health implications of climate change”; and to call on the federal and provincial governments to undertake the necessary policies to meet Canada’s obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Paris Agreement)….”

Also at the convention, the CFNU released a  discussion paper: Climate Change and Health: It’s Time for Nurses to Act . It is described as “a starting point for for advocacy and leadership”. It summarizes the well-established health impacts related to climate change in the Canadian environment – for example, heat stress, increased allergies and asthma, cardiorespiratory distress from air pollution due to wildfires, Lyme disease. It includes a special focus on mental health and anxiety impacts.  It also highlights three practical examples from  2018 : wildfire smoke exposure in B.C., flooding in Atlantic Canada, and heat waves in Ontario and Quebec.

The report concludes with these six recommendations for nurses:

  1. Work with your employers, unions and associations to reduce emissions and to “green” your workplace.  (sub-recommendations include “Promote the divestment of pension plans from high-emission sectors and the investment in clean technologies and low-emission sectors;”)
  2. Know about climate change science, and help educate patients and the general public about it.  (sub-recommendations include “Campaign for the ecological determinants of health to be included in nursing education to prepare future generations of nurses, who will see the greatest effects of climate change. Nursing education should support a basic level of climate change literacy.”)
  3. Call for meaningful federal and provincial actions to reduce and eliminate climate change-causing emissions to ensure Canada leads the world in implementing its obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (The Paris Accord). (Sub-recommendation: Promote transitioning away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. ….. By investing in renewal energy rather than in fossil fuels we are committing to a healthier future.)
  4. Be aware and plan for the emerging needs of patients resulting from climate change and help them take action to support a healthy planet. (Sub-recommendation: “ Be aware and prepare your workplaces for future influxes of climate refugees coming to Canada. This population may have experienced trauma or extreme environmental conditions and taken risks to enter this country.”)
  5. Be prepared for extreme weather events.
  6. Promote active transportation and local healthy agriculture and food systems to reduce emissions.

Climate-Change-Toolkit-for-Health-Professionals-2019-234x300The Discussion paper was launched as part of a panel which included Dr. Courtney Howard, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.  CAPE issued their latest Call to Action  in February 2019 , in collaboration with the Canadian Medical Association , the Canadian Nurses Association, the Urban Public Health Network , and the Canadian Public Health Association.  On April 30, CAPE released a Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals, which is available for download in either English or French , and offers eight stand-alone modules with seven factsheets. Topics include Climate Change Health Impacts Globally and Across Canada; Taking Climate Change Action at Health Facilities ; Preparing for Climate Change in our Communities;  and Engaging in Climate Change as Health Professionals, which highlights, for example,  CAPE’s role in the campaign to phase-out coal in Alberta. As part of their active advocacy campaign, CAPE  makes frequent media statements and was part of the health delegation which met with the federal Minister of Health on June 7 .