Photo: The heart of the matter on climate change


Bradley J. Dibble is a cardiologist working in both Barrie and Newmarket, Ontario. In addition to his commitment to health care with a particular emphasis on risk-factor management and preventative medicine, he has a special interest in environmental issues and the climate crisis. He was appointed by the federal Minister of the Environment in 2009 to the Sustainable Development Advisory Council and is an Eco-Leader with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Dr. Dibble has written a book titled Comprehending the Climate Crisis, which has just been published. Docs Talk asked Dr. Dibble to share his perspective on climate change.

Docs Talk: As a cardiologist, what sparked your interest in climate change issues?

Dr. Dibble: First and foremost, my concerns about climate change stem more from simply being a concerned citizen of this planet. However, as physicians we have a duty to care for people in our communities, and not just those who are sick; we also do our best to prevent health problems. I believe that duty extends beyond those who step into our offices. Additionally, cardiovascular and respiratory patients are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, so many of the types of patients I treat are going to be the most susceptible to adverse effects on health due to climate change.

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Docs Talk: What effects could climate change have on the "heart health" of Canadians?

Dr. Dibble: Studies have already shown us that increases in heat and humidity lead to a much greater risk of heart attack and death, especially in those people who have cardiovascular disease or are at an increased risk for it, particularly in seniors. On hot and humid days, we always advise those individuals to do their best to stay cool and to keep themselves well hydrated. If climate change continues as it is projected to do — with 10 out of the last 11 years having been the hottest on record — then we are going to see greater numbers of people affected than ever before. In addition, the warmer temperatures associated with climate change are expected to exacerbate air-quality problems. In particular, the formation of ground-level ozone, a component in smog, is temperature-dependent. Climate change scenarios project increasing concentrations of this gas, and that will take a major toll on human health. Already, 5.5 per cent of cardiopulmonary (heart and lung disease-related) deaths in Canada can be attributed to ground-level ozone exposure and levels have been increasing over the past decade. This will only worsen if present trends continue.

Docs Talk: As a physician, what other impacts from climate change are you concerned about?

Dr. Dibble: There are almost too many to list, but I'll highlight a few that are of particular concern to me. One will be the territorial expansion for many disease vectors such as the mosquito, which plays a part in the transmission of malaria. The regions where the mosquito spreads the disease will extend greatly as global warming worsens. The 250 million people on this planet who are infected each year could easily double in years to come. The mosquito is only one example, and many other diseases transmitted by vectors will be affected in a similar manner. An example that's closer to home and has more direct impact on Canadians is Lyme disease, which has the deer tick as its vector. It will similarly expand its territory with climate change. Another concern I have is that climate change is going to cost us all financially. When you realize that hurricane Katrina cost more than $80 billion dollars, and such severe weather phenomena are going to become more common with global warming, that is money that unfortunately has to go toward helping our planet cope with these catastrophes rather than going to other things such as health care.

Docs Talk: Energy-related emissions account for 80 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas pollution. What would you say are the healthiest energy options for Canadians?

Dr. Dibble: It's well-known that our cardiovascular health benefits from physical activity. Some of the best energy options then are when we rely on our own people power rather than vehicles to get us from point A to point B. For those who can, it would be far better to walk or bike to school or work than to drive. Since about 30 per cent of our emissions are from vehicles, this is one of the best ways we have to not only help our cardiovascular health but to reduce our carbon footprint. Looking to other options, Canadians can do their best to reduce their carbon footprint by targeting electricity consumption, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. By making efforts to steer clear from fossil fuels and look to renewable sources of energy as the best answer to this problem, substantial reductions can be achieved. Many health care professionals in Canada have already teamed up to support a campaign to achieve this very goal.

Docs Talk: If you could write a "prescription" to solve climate change, what would it be?

Dr. Dibble: Having international agreement about the severity of the problem is the first important step, because until governments come together to tackle this issue on a global scale, in the spirit of cooperation, I believe it will be too difficult for us as individuals to do it all on our own. My prescription would be for the leaders in the industrialized and rapidly developing worlds to place themselves in a room and not come out until a binding agreement on the price of carbon is reached that can be enforced worldwide. In the meantime, I would like to see Canada lead by example. Yes, we sit on a large deposit of bitumen with the Athabasca oil sands, but they are the dirtiest source of oil on the planet, and the fastest growing source of emissions in this country. Just because there's a demand doesn't mean we should supply it. As it stands now, oil is the drug, the world is the junkie, and Canada is the dealer. I think a real opportunity to spearhead an international move toward renewable sources of energy and away from fossil fuels is at our fingertips. It's up to our political leaders to do the right thing and we need to voice our concerns to them so they know how we feel about the issue.

Docs Talk: As individuals, what can Canadians do to protect their health from the effects of climate change?

Dr. Dibble: Minimizing the risk of disease by living healthy is a great start. That means exercising, eating healthy and in the right amounts, not smoking, and knowing your risk factors such as blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol levels and treating them as needed. A healthy body will cope much better with the effects of climate change than a diseased one. But becoming an advocate for a healthy planet and combating the problem in our personal lives and as families so we can minimize such effects is critical as well. The old adage still stands: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

October 12, 2011

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