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What impact does an extreme environment have on our health?

Recently, I began considering how much of my career has focused on the solutions for various chronic health conditions.

Correlating the root cause of a patient’s illness, as directly attributable to the wider issues of environmental conditions, had however, somewhat passed me by. Of course, I acknowledge how at risk populations such as children, pregnant women or older adults, are affected by climate and extreme weather factors. Mainly because we regularly see news reports on the winter crisis within the NHS, and in summer, heat waves bringing air pollution measurements, in major cities to dangerous levels. One such illustration of the devastating effect of extreme weather, was the heatwave in the summer of 2003. This event resulted in over 2,000 deaths across England and Wales, when the mercury rose to 30°C for ten consecutive days within the month of August, and exceeded 35°C in numerous places around the UK, on three of those ten days. *1

From a number of academic studies post this tragic event, conclusions about those deaths being directly attributable to patients’ increased inhalation of fine particulate matter are difficult to quantify. However, what are well documented are the effects of air pollution on conditions including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cardiovascular disease. *2

Ecological studies also highlight issues for patients where their environment was not able to be controlled e.g. with air-conditioning, concluding that the effects of the excessive high temperatures on mortality were greatest out of hospital, compared to those in-hospital. *3

Furthermore, ozone, itself is a respiratory irritant, is strongly affected by the climate, and background levels of ozone are increasing across much of Europe. *4

In 2016 a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), raised these startling facts;

  • UK has circa. 40,000 deaths resulting from exposure to outdoor air pollution

  • The cost across the health service and to businesses from these premature deaths add up to more than £20 billion every year

I hope some of the details shared have provided a sense that climate conditions, extremes of weather, and associated air pollution issues are a population wide concern.

The reality that air pollution harms us all across our lifespan and regardless of where we live, provides powerful arguments to support cleaning up the air we breathe.

My focus in working with organisations and developments that are amazing, cutting edge, innovative medicines or new technologies, will now include, bringing to their attention the wider impact of extreme environmental conditions, as this can only be of benefit to the patient.

What we as a society need to consider is, how any additional environmental clean-up efforts our government provide, cost far less than the monetised health benefits they will produce.

References *

  1. Burt S (2004) The August 2003 heatwave in the United Kingdom: Part I. Maximum temperatures and historical precedents. Weather 59(8), 199–208.

  2. Stedman J R (2004) The predicted number of air pollution related deaths in the UK during the August 2003 heatwave. Atmospheric Environment 38, 1087–1090.

  3. Michelozzi P, de Donato F, Accetta G, Forastiere F, DʼOvido M and Kalkstein L S (2004) Impact of heat waves on mortality - Rome, Italy, June-August 2003. JAMA 291(21), 2537–2538.


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