Health warning: save the planet

Floods, heatwaves, ozone gases and pollution all have an impact on people’s health. Robert Millett finds out why climate change is a health issue for us all

If the Earth was your patient, how would you treat it?

The world is in need of a radical 'rehabilitation' programme

The physiology of the planet is being ravaged by climate change and the health of its inhabitants is seriously under threat.

The world is in need of a radical ‘rehabilitation’ programme–and physios could form a vital part of the treatment plan.

That’s the message from CSP professional adviser Alex Lipman, who recently attended an international conference in London to examine the role of health professionals in tackling climate-related issues.

Climate change is certainly happening. After decades of research, the scientific consensus is now overwhelmingly in agreement about that.

Our combustion of fossil fuels is causing an ever-increasing accumulation of ‘greenhouse gases’ in the atmosphere.

The argument, among mainstream scientists, is now about details and the best ways of coping. The main opposition is not scientific but political.  

But not everyone sees the particular relevance of climate change to health professionals.


The extinction of, say, polar bears might be sad but how does that affect human beings?

In reality, the polar bear’s present struggle is a warning to humans, a few years down the line.

And though developing countries are being hit first, the changes will spread to the rest of the world–not least as refugees flee from uninhabitable zones.

How it affects physios

It’s a subject that affects physiotherapists, for reasons that go beyond general health concerns.

As The Lancet reports changing weather patterns will increase the strain on services including physiotherapy.

Floods and storms, for example, increase the risk of accidents, leading to an increased toll of injuries.

Ground-level ozone affects lung tissue while rising temperatures put a stress on the cardiovascular system - both affecting patients’ chances of successful rehabilitation.

The CSP has joined the Climate and Health Council, a group of more than 40 international health organisations emphasising the health implications of global climate change.

Other professional bodies include the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing.

How physios can help

Rising temperatures will alter the planet and create health challenges for humans across the globe

‘As physiotherapists we shouldn’t underestimate the role that we can play,’ says CSP member Lester Jones, lecturer at the department of physiotherapy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

‘As individuals and as a profession, we can take action to mitigate climate change.’

Lester Jones is a strong advocate for physiotherapists taking positive action on climate change. He believes they are well placed to influence the public and should be making environmental sustainability a priority.

‘As a profession,’ he says, ‘We can put pressure on manufacturers and suppliers to reduce carbon emissions.


'We should demand energy-efficient equipment and less packaging, and buy products of environmentally sustainable manufacturing processes.

‘We can also provide messages about the environmental impact of behaviour to our patients–and highlight the personal benefits of lowering carbon emissions, such as lower energy bills and better physical fitness.’

Alex Lipman agrees that physios are well placed to educate patients about the multiple benefits of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Less car use, for a start, would improve ex-drivers’ fitness as well as air quality.

Leading by example

Physios can help by setting a good example, Ms Lipman adds. And as with all good health advice, prevention is the key. Adaptation and mitigation strategies will both be necessary to cope with change.

By connecting health professionals and uniting the voices of international organisations, the Climate and Health Council aims to lobby for effective governmental and United Nations action.

It also hopes to inspire individual professionals, by encouraging them to take positive action–both at home and at work–and by stressing the importance of the health perspective.

Addressing climate change should be an issue of concern for all health professionals, according to the British Medical Association.

‘Action to tackle climate change not only reduces the risks to our environment and global stability but offers significant health co-benefits,’ many BMA members said in a statement issued at the recent conference.  

‘Climate-change mitigation policies would thus significantly cut rates of preventable death and disability for hundreds of millions of people around the world.’ fl

The impact of climate change on health

Climate change is ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’, according to a 2009 report produced by The Lancet in collaboration with University College London.

It caused the loss of 5.5 million disability-adjusted life years in the year 2000, according to statistics from the World Health Organization, and on a global scale this morbidity burden is increasing.

The main impacts on health are likely to be:

  • Changing weather patterns, which are contributing to death, disease and injury. Widespread droughts have led to malnutrition, starvation, mental health effects and escalating conflict in the regions affected.
  • Rising temperatures, changing sea levels and more frequent and extreme weather patterns are widening health and social inequalities, with developing countries bearing the brunt.
  • In higher temperatures the cardiovascular system undergoes increasing stresses. Older people, babies, young children and people with cardiac conditions or ill-health will be much more vulnerable.
  • Increasing air temperatures are likely to raise the concentration of ozone gases at ground level.
  • Ground-level ozone is a pollutant that can damage lung tissue, exacerbate respiratory diseases and cause pulmonary congestion, nausea and chest pain.
  • Diseases long associated with warmer countries could spread to northern Europe, including tick-borne   encephalitis, Lyme disease, malaria, dengue fever,  leptospirosis and West Nile Virus.
  • People will be exposed to more ultraviolet radiation, leading to more sunburn, sunstroke and skin cancers.
  • Warmer temperatures will increase the chances of food poisoning and intestinal diseases.
  • The UK’s sewerage systems are not designed to cope with climate change.
  • An increase in rainfall could overwhelm them. If flooding and severe storms become more prevalent, the health risks from contaminated water will also rise.

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Robert Millett

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