Climate Change & Health

On Thursday 24th November a set of motivational and inspiring talks about climate change and global health took place at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital’s medical school.

The NHS in England employs around 1.3million staff which equates to 5% of the UK workforce and is  the largest employer in Europe . The NHS has a carbon footprint  of 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year which results from heating and lighting  buildings powering equipment, procuring goods and services, and sending waste to landfill.

 David Pencheon (Director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, England) said that change in the NHS is the new constant but doctors tend to be conservative.  They like to think they pioneer change such as stopping smoking,  transplants and genetic research etc. However, many doctors are resistant to the current NHS reforms in England. Changing behaviour is very difficult and influenced by context: we turn the lights off at home when not needed and take great care to recycle where possible, but not in a hospital, despite knowing that the long term (if not the short term) consequences are exactly the same. It only takes good people to do too little for bad things to happen;

Setting an example is very important: (“if smoking were that dangerous, my doctor wouldn’t smoke” and “if climate change really is the greatest health threat we face, then doctors would surely take more action”).

Some doctors do take action on sustainability and climate change: particularly anaesthetists. Why? Is it because they are exposed to so much non-recyclable waste generated in operating theatres every day?  A 2 month audit of waste by Shelton & Rothwell in an English hospital showed how behaving more sustainably can deliver better patient care, protect the future, and save money today.  A few committed people can change the world.

David went on to say that climate change is arguably the largest health threat that faces us and every person has an obligation to mitigate its effects. He outlined briefly what the unit is doing and asked for the views of the audience (mostly medical students).

Jason Horseley (Specialist in Public Health, Lecturer in Sustainable Healthcare) put climate change into context. He mentioned that the likely consequences of climate change are as follows:

flooding, sea level rise, reduced availability of clean water, Increased incidence of diarrhoea & other water borne & vector borne diseases;
food shortages causing malnutrition and conflict, energy shortages & heat stress.

These effects, produced mainly by the advanced countries,  will hit developing countries hardest.  The global impacts on the UK were identified as:

crop failures which cause  food insecurity  and food shortages;
armed conflict over water, land and food supplies;
major flooding leading to mass migration.

The Direct impacts within the UK were identified as:
an increase in deaths, disability and injury from: extremes of heat and cold and floods and storms (including health hazards from chemical and sewage pollution)
food poisoning, respiratory problems, skin cancer and cataracts;
insect-borne disease from increases in flies and fleas (although malaria outbreaks are likely to be rare, diseases like Dengue Fever are thought to be more likely).

On a European level, the 2003 heat wave caused more than 23,000 premature deaths.  The health co-benefits from tackling climate change include:

Reducing car use – best intervention to help tackle “obesity epidemic”, fewer traffic accidents, less air pollution
More fresh fruit and veg, less meat – reduction in cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity
More exercise and appreciation of natural environment – less depression / mental illness
More equitable global distribution of wealth – >less global conflict?

After discussing carbon footprints, he addressed the ethics of climate change, both of international (where the West has produced the CO2 & developing countries suffer the worst consequences) and
intergenerational  (what do we owe to future generations -our children?)

He finally mentioned peak oil by stating that the oil situation is dire.  Its rate of discovery is declining while its rate of production and use is increasing, so we must be heading for a major shortfall.

See  for more details.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals has released its sustainable development plan and can be read on line using the link below.  or from here