A Canadian woman could be the first patient to be diagnosed as suffering from “climate change.”
Dr Kyle Merritt, an emergency room doctor in Nelson, British Columbia, told Glacier Media that a patient in her 70s came into the emergency department at Kootenay Lake Hospital in June 2021 when the Pacific Northwest was being battered by an unprecedented heatwave.
While Canada was experiencing record temperatures, the hospital started to flood with patients. Along with the scorching heat causing exhaustion and dehydration, the area was also being blanketed with smoke from wildfires sparked by lightning storms, leading to an influx of respiratory conditions. For one particular patient, Dr Merrit said it was clear her symptoms were being worsened by the environmental conditions that were unfolding around her.
“She has diabetes. She has some heart failure… She lives in a trailer, no air conditioning,” Dr Merritt told Glacier Media.
“All of her health problems have all been worsened. And she's really struggling to stay hydrated,” he added.
Merritt took the decision to write “climate change” within her diagnosis notes. As well as making a bold statement, he believes that it was important to directly identify the fundamental cause of her illness from a practical point of view.
“If we're not looking at the underlying cause, and we're just treating the symptoms, we're just gonna keep falling further and further behind,” he explained.
“It's me trying to just ... process what I'm seeing. We're in the emergency department, we look after everybody, from the most privileged to the most vulnerable, from cradle to grave, we see everybody. And it's hard to see people, especially the most vulnerable people in our society, being affected. It's frustrating.”
While this may well be a first for Canada, there’s plenty of evidence to show that climate change is already impacting human health across the world, from cardiovascular and infectious diseases to injuries and deaths caused by extreme weather. As global temperatures continue to rise, these risks are only going to intensify. An editorial published in over 230 health and medicine journals earlier this year stated that exceeding the 1.5°C (2.7°F) global warming threshold risks "catastrophic harm to health.”
“Health is already being harmed by global temperature increases and the destruction of the natural world, a state of affairs health professionals have been bringing attention to for decades,” the paper's authors wrote. “The science is unequivocal; a global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse.”
"The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature," the editorial concluded.
The push to officially cite climate-related environmental issues in peoples' deaths is gaining momentum. Last year, a landmark inquest saw a 9-year-old girl from London, Ella Kissi-Debrah, become the first person in the UK to have air pollution officially recognized on their death certificate. A paper also published in 2020 in The Lancet Planetary Health found that excessive natural heat deaths in Australia in the last decade are at least 50 times more than officially recorded on death certificates, leading the researchers to argue that climate change should be recognized on death certificates.