Protect health from climate change

In an interview with ASHWINI Ranade, ALEXANDER von Hildebrand, Regional Advisor, WHO, shares his views on how we can protect your health from some impacts of climate change by making simple choices in our daily routines.

Saving EarthClimate change can affect health in many ways. It affects the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil our food comes from. Climate change also has a social impact, and some groups are more at risk than others. By making simple choices at home, at work or on the road, we can save energy.

World Health Day on April 7 marks the founding of the World Health Organization [WHO] and is an opportunity to draw worldwide attention to a subject of major importance to global health each year. In 2008, World Health Day focuses on the need to protect health from the adverse effects of climate change. The theme “Protecting health from climate change” raises the profile of health dangers posed by global climate variability and change.

Just as countries around the world have recognised the urgent need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to address the climate change challenge, we must all do our fair share as our long-term health depends on it.

Q: What are the health impacts of climate change on people?

Climatic factors are an important determinant of various vector-borne diseases, many enteric illnesses and certain water-related diseases. Here’s an overview of how climate change can affect our health.

Warm spells, heatwaves and stagnant air masses

  • Heat stroke, affecting mainly children and the elderly
  • Increase in respiratory diseases
  • Cardio-vascular illnesses.

Warmer temperatures and disturbed rainfall patterns

  • More exposure to diseases like malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis and other diseases carried by vectors such as mosquitoes, rodents and ticks [known as “vectors”. These diseases are therefore called vector-borne diseases.

Heavy precipitation events

  • Increased risk of diseases related to contaminated water [water borne] and to unsafe food [food-borne]. Depletion of safe water supplies and poor sanitation will increase the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera.


  • Malnutrition and starvation particularly affecting children’s growth and development.
  • Reduced crop yields causing stress for farmers and their families [known as “psychosocial stress”], who may be unable to pay their debts during extended and repeated droughts.

Intense weather events [cyclones, storms]

  • Loss of life, injuries, life long handicaps
  • Damaged public health infrastructure such as health centres, hospitals and clinics.
  • Loss of life, loss of property and land, displacement and forced migration due to disasters will bring about psychosocial stress affecting mental health.

Q: How can individuals deal with the associated heath problems?

There are two basic ways to deal with the health problems of climate change:

  • Reduce the causes of climate change and its consequences on human health – known as “mitigation” and
  • Improve the capacity to cope with the health risks by being better prepared – known as “adaptation”.

For example, some measures that will reduce our household greenhouse gases [GHGs] emissions include:

  1. Less use of AC and water coolers.
  2. Use low-energy light bulbs and switch them off when leaving the room.
  3. Save water by not letting it run while brushing your teeth.
  4. Turn off computers, TV and other appliances when not in use.
  5. Improve insulation systems in your homes by designing your houses better.
  6. Walk or cycle more – use the car less!
  7. Share ride to school with friends and neighbours. It’s also fun!
  8. Implement the “Three R’s principle”: Reduce, Recycle, Re-use!
  9. Home water purification treatments can prevent water-borne diseases.
  10. Sleeping in mosquito nets can protect us from being bitten by mosquitoes carrying diseases such as malaria and dengue.

Tips to reduce effects of climate change

“A to Z” tips on what “WE” can do “NOW”, to help reduce the adverse health impacts from climate change.

  • Act Now!
  • Buy energy efficient appliances: Make informed choices. If you’re buying a washing machine, refrigerator, dish-washer or oven, buy the most energy-efficient model you can afford. The same is true for procurement of office equipment, such as computers, photocopiers and printers.
  • Calculate your personal carbon footprint and cut your greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Debate, discuss, distribute leaflets, brochures and posters on climate change and environmental health issues.
  • Enjoy the sun! Fit solar panels on the roof of your home. Why not turn your home or office into a clean power station? Solar power is renewable and plentiful!
  • Fridge: Don’t leave fridge doors open for longer than necessary; let foods cool down fully before placing in the fridge or freezer; defrost regularly and keep the appliance at the right temperature. Where possible, don’t place cookers and fridges/freezers next to each other.
  • Go Green! If you have to buy a car, buy a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly one. This will save you money and keep more CO2 from going into the atmosphere. Make sure that your tires are inflated correctly — this can save you five per cent on the cost of your petrol. Share car journeys with your work colleagues or friends. Make more use of public transport, such as the metro, and the train for longer journeys. For short trips and local shopping, try walking or use a bicycle. It keeps you fit and is fun too!
  • Halve your emissions by moving your air conditioner thermostat up by 5?C in summer. Almost half of the energy we use in our homes goes to cooling. Maintain the filters on your air conditioners by cleaning them regularly. A clean air filter can save pounds of carbon dioxide a year.
  • Involve your family, friends, children and neighbours!
  • Join an environmental group. Find out what action groups are doing around your locality or region; if there are no groups, start one!
  • Kick start an environmental campaign in your neighbourhood
  • Lamps: Replace the bulbs you use most with compact fluorescent lamps or CFL bulbs.
  • Minimise the use of toxic chemicals. Use non toxic, biodegradable, water- or plant-based paints, cleaners and pest repellents.
  • Network with specialised agencies, non-profit organisations and engaged communities.
  • Offset your carbon footprint. There are many cost-effective energy saving and carbon reducing steps anyone can take.
  • Plant trees: The United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP] has launched a major worldwide tree planting campaign, aiming at planting one billion trees around the globe
  • Quit using plastic bags. Carry your own bag with you when going shopping
  • Recycle, repair and reuse materials. Tips, tricks and ideas for sustainable living.
  • Save paper. Print on both sides of the paper. Proof-read documents on screen before printing. Do not discard one-sided printed pages; use them to make scratch pads.
  • Turn off televisions, videos, stereos and computers when they are not in use — they can consume between 10 and 60 per cent of the power when in “stand-by” mode. Turn off computer screens and photocopiers when you take a break. Also turn off lights when you don’t need them.
  • Use less energy, and conserve more of it!
  • Do not waste water – close your tap while brushing your teeth, soaping clothes, body or dishes. Repair leaky plumbing fixtures; prevent overflowing of tanks. Energy is used for pumping and treating water. Save water to save energy!
  • Value wastes! Do not dump your home wastes everywhere. Heaps of garbage left in the open emit methane and contribute to global warming. Segregate your wastes so they can be recycled or reused and where possible use organic waste for composting.
  • Write letters about the health impacts of climate change to the local newspapers. This is a great way to keep the issue in the public mind. It also sparks a debate and allows us all to understand what the real issues are.
  • X-press your concerns on environmental health issues and solutions and stay informed. Read widely and understand what we are dealing with.
  • Your president, prime minister, parliamentarian or local leader needs to know about the impacts of climate change on health. Write letters to them asking for policies to ensure greenhouse gas emissions fall by at least three per cent each year from now on.
  • Zoom in on reducing emissions: it is the best way forward! Our countries need new national legislation and laws to help ensure that we develop cleaner cars and cleaner power plants and to help us get government rebates on installing solar power, solar hot water or wind power in our homes.
Ashwini Ranade, who holds a master's degree in biochemistry, was a staff member of the CW editorial team at the time of writing this article


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