Climate change poses serious threat to public health

by Michael Smith

Climate change will bring with it a set of problems that will have a particular impact on the environmental health profession, a conference heard this week.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) hosted its “An Unhealthy Climate - a call for action and changing behavior” event at its London headquarters on recently where it looked at the issue of changing weather patterns from a new angle.

While we are all aware of the big-picture problems like drought, floods and melting ice caps, environmental health practitioners will face their own professional challenges, the conference heard.

The threat of pest-borne diseases currently rare or unheard of in the UK, together with storing food in warmer weather conditions and securing a safe food supply are all likely to come to the fore in future years.

Such pest-borne diseases and pest problems will be compounded as well, of this we can be certain, by the fortnightly collection of rubbish from households and especially the latest ideas of the leftover food bins that are supposed to be collected for commercial composting. While we can all but commend the idea of using all parts of the garbage that accumulates with households (and businesses) bins with food rests will, however, attract vermin, especially of the furry long-tailed rodent variety. The fact that the stuff is in plastic bins that have a locked lid is not going to deter those critters.

Graham Jukes, CIEH chief executive, said: "Climate change presents one of the most significant challenges to public health we have ever faced, putting at risk the very pillars of life: clean water, sanitation, air quality and food.

“We believe that health must be at the heart of action on climate change. It must be embedded in the political debate, in strategies to change how we live and in how we plan for the future.

“Environmental health practitioners (EHPs) have a key role to play in this process. Many aspects of environmental health are crucial to mitigating and adapting to the effects of global warming.

“EHPs have the expertise and skills to develop activities and interventions to help reduce carbon emissions but also prepare for the effects of things such as more frequent heat waves and floods, food and water shortages, a rise in infectious diseases and in the incidence of pests and even population movements.”

In addition, though they are not new to the British Isles, mosquitoes and malaria may also spread across the country if the temperatures do rise and especially if the wet weather in summer continues. To stop mosquitoes breeding in Britain on a large level – for in the Fenlands and Epping Forest they have been for ever and a day and never gone away – people must ensure that there are no bodies of water, especially standing stagnant water, in their gardens and such.

This is all something that could come to those Islands here, and more to boot. Bugs are not being killed off as they used to when we had real winters and strong frosts for a length of time. Now, if we get a cold snap it is for a day or a couple and then we are back to rain and mild weather.

The environmental health practitioners are not the only ones that will have to battle this but each and everyone of us must play his or her part. I am sure that in due course, or so at least I hope, we will get the necessary information from the government agencies responsible.

© M Smith (Veshengro), December 2008