Climate change is already harming people across Canada. In June 2021, approximately 600 people died in one week in British Columbia (BC) from a heat wave of unprecedented intensity. Two more people died when the Town of Lytton burned to the ground following three consecutive days with temperatures in the high 40s. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of people had their lives disrupted by evacuation orders and evacuations that resulted from 1,600 wildfires that consumed over 8,700 square kilometres of land in BC. During those months, millions of people across Canada were exposed to elevated levels of toxic air pollution created from burning forests with extremely high levels air pollution in BC and Alberta.
This is not the first time that climate change has claimed the lives of Canadians. For example:
- 66 people lost their lives to a heat wave in Montreal in 2018;
- two young people died trying to escape the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016;
- 35 died and 1000 were injured from an ice storm that left thousands of people in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick without power for days or weeks in 1998; and
- Ten people were killed in a flood in the Saguaney region north of Quebec City in 1996.
For each one of these deaths, many more people in Canada have been harmed, physically or mentally, by extreme weather-related events that have become more frequent and/or more intense over the last few decades because of global warming. Wildfire smoke alone is estimated to cause $4.7 to $20.8 billion in health-related impacts, each year, in Canada.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Canada have been evacuated from their homes for floods, wildfires or extreme storms, while nearly a million have been left without power for an extended time because of these events. These are cirumstances that can cause injuries, deaths, and illness from water- or food-borne contamination. They can also produce mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and increased use of drugs and alcohol. Climate change is also melting permafrost in the far north, increasing sea levels on three coast lines, and extending the range of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease.
While climate change can harm the health of all of us, like COVID19, it has a greater impact on sensitive and disadvantaged populations. Young children, older people, and people with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma are more sensitive to stressors such as heat waves and wildfire smoke. Indigenous Peoples in Northern communities can experience greater food insecurity as melting permafrost and shifting plant and animal populations disrupt their access to traditional foods. In addition, people who live on lower incomes may not have the resources to protect themselves or recover from extreme weather events.
There is good news in this story. Many of the actions needed to fight climate change will improve public health. Investments in public transit, active modes of transportation, building retrofits, zero emission vehicles and renewable energy will improve air quality, increase physical activity, and if done correctly, reduce health inequities. These investments will have significant and immediate health benefits. One study, has estimated that we could avoid up to 36,000 air quality-related premature deaths each year in Canada if we stopped burning fossil fuels. It is time for Canada to do its fair share!!
Prepared by Kim Perrotta MHSc, October 26, 2021