Health profession speaks out on climate change and air pollution

“I think the feeling is and the evidence suggests that the Government doesn’t really have a plan.”

aircraft_pollution07:39 Wednesday 30th March 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Floods, heatwaves, pollution. mosquitos, is the NHS ready for the impact of climate change? Well a new organisation made up of bodies like the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Nursing thinks not actually. This is the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. It says climate change events are becoming more intense and more frequent. It wants the Government to set up action plans to ensure the public and the health systems they rely on are able to respond. Dr Fiona Godlee is the Editor in Chief of the British Medical Journal, one of the organisations in the new Alliance. Morning Fiona.
FIONA GODLEE: Good morning.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So why has the BMJ signed up to this?
FIONA GODLEE: Well we’re quite clear about the urgency of the situation, and I think the fact that the UK’s major health institutions have come together to speak with one voice on this does show the extent of the scientific consensus that climate change is really a huge threat to public health, but also a huge opportunity, in that the things we might need to do, that we do need to do to tackle climate change are also good for health.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. So what kind of threats are we talking about?
FIONA GODLEE: So we’re talking as you say about heatwaves, more extreme weather, flooding, a change in patterns of disease, so vector-borne disease like mosquitos and that sort of thing, and we’ve seen that with the Zika outbreak in Latin America. But also the on-effects of that. If you think of people who are subjected to flooding as happened in recent Storm Desmond in December last year, the physical and mental health effects of being displaced from your home and the anxiety and depression that follow. So there are direct effects of climate change happening now. And also just to mention air pollution, which I think is a big concern to the public, a sort of silent killer that we know every year kills around 40,000 people due to cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease. And also ill health as a result of those things, costing an estimate of about £20 billion every year to the UK. So we’re talking about real effects happening now to people in the UK.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You say that you want the Government to set up action plans to deal with things like flooding, like heatwaves, like pollution. Does the Government not already have action plans on those issues? People do leap into action when there are floods as a result of Storm Desmond.
FIONA GODLEE: Yes. I think the feeling is and the evidence suggests that the Government doesn’t really have a plan, that there are obviously emergency responses to specific events, but in terms of the national plan, a really well thought through cross-governmental approach to the risk of climate change, both to deal with the immediate effects, the flooding, the heatwaves, the air pollution, but also to actually try to limit climate change going forward, the Government has tended to backtrack on its promises over the past Parliament. And we really want to see them taking seriously the effects of climate change on people’s lives, and the need to act in order to minimise those effects going forward.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Do you have an inkling of how much climate change related illnesses or conditions are costing the NHS now? Or is this just based on anecdotal evidence?
FIONA GODLEE: No we do have very good evidence about the effect of heatwaves for example, that in 2003, which was one of the big heatwaves, both affecting England and Europe, 2,000 excess deaths. And the idea being that those excessively hot summers are going to become more frequent. And also as I’ve said air pollution, 40,000 excess deaths and a lot of ill-health, £20 billion every year as a result of the health effects of air pollution. So these are things that can be tackled. They’re things that are solvable with clear Government strategies, and also small but important changes to individual life behaviours. So active transport, walking, cycling, using public transport, investing in public transport, reducing air pollution through cleaner energy. We want coal power to be phased out. We want more energy efficient homes. So all of these things which are happening to some extent, but need to happen a great deal more if we’re really going to take this seriously and save lives and save costs.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Fiona, thank you very much. Dr Fiona Godlee there, who is the Editor in Chief of the British Medical Journal, one of the organisations which is signed up to this new Alliance, .UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.