Climate scientists sound the alarm; those with lung conditions at risk

Monday, 30 October, 2023

Climate scientists sound the alarm; those with lung conditions at risk

A global team of climate scientists has reported that Earth’s vital signs have worsened beyond anything humans have seen, to the point that life on Earth is imperilled — and people living with lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are particularly at risk.

In a paper published in the journal Bioscience, the scientists state that 20 of 35 identified planetary vital signs are at record extremes. They revealed that this year Canadian wildfires have pumped more than 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; that there have already been 38 days with global average temperatures more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; and that July saw the highest average Earth surface temperature ever recorded — possibly the highest temperature the planet has seen in the last 100,000 years.

Study co-author Dr Thomas Newsome, from The University of Sydney, said the trends “indicate the need to drastically speed and scale up efforts globally to combat climate change”, making particular note of the fact that “extreme weather and other climate impacts are disproportionately felt by the poorest people”.

But it’s not just the poor who are at risk, with a separate study published in the European Respiratory Journal revealing how climate change will exacerbate breathing difficulties for millions of people living with lung conditions around the world.

“Climate change affects everyone’s health, but arguably, respiratory patients are among the most vulnerable,” said report co-author Professor Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, Chair of the European Respiratory Society’s Environment and Health Committee. “These are people who already experience breathing difficulties and they are far more sensitive to our changing climate. Their symptoms will become worse, and for some this will be fatal.”

According to the report, the damaging effects of climate change include higher temperatures and a subsequent increase in airborne allergens, such as pollen. They also include more frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and wildfires, leading to episodes of extreme air pollution and dust storms, as well as heavy rainfall and flooding, leading to higher humidity and mould in the home. The report particularly highlights the extra risk to babies and children, whose lungs are still developing.

“As respiratory doctors and nurses, we need to be aware of these new risks and do all we can to help alleviate patients’ suffering,” Jovanovic Andersen said. “We also need to explain the risks to our patients so they can protect themselves from adverse effects of climate change.”

Existing EU standards on air quality are well above those laid out in the World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines — 25 mg/m3 for fine particles (PM2.5) and 40 mg/m3 for nitrogen dioxide in the EU, compared to 5 mg/m3 for PM2.5 and 10 mg/m3 for nitrogen dioxide in the WHO guidelines. However, the EU is currently revising its Ambient Air Quality Directive.

“The current limits are outdated and fail to protect the health of EU citizens,” Jovanovic Andersen said. “Ambitious new air quality standards would ensure cleaner air and better health for all Europeans, as well as helping to mitigate climate change crises. We urge the European Parliament to adopt and enforce safer limits without delay.”

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