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Climate change a public health issue, Nelson doctor says

The head of the emergency room at Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson says climate change deserves to be tracked as the underlying cause of many health issues.

Dr. Kyle Merritt is one of about 20 members of Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health. He says climate change can be linked to high temperatures resulting in heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It’s more difficult to draw a direct link to other ailments, but he believes it to be a likely contributing cause to things like cardiovascular disease, and increases in strokes and heart attacks resulting from particulate matter in wildfire smoke.

“Just like if someone came [down] with cancer after smoking all their life, we might not be able to say 100 per cent that they wouldn’t have got it without smoking, but we can say with some confidence that the smoking was a contributing factor,” he says.

Merritt says there are also underappreciated mental health impacts. Anecdotally, he believes many people suffer from anxiety or PTSD when the skies are choked with smoke, which is made worse by not being able to do things outdoors that make them feel well.

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During the heat dome this past summer that saw prolonged record-setting temperatures in the West Kootenay, Merritt actually wrote “climate change” on a patient’s chart when admitting them to hospital.

He says although the patient suffered from chronic health conditions, they got worse on account of the heat, as they had no air conditioning and were unable to cool off.

“Because of how hot it was, I didn’t feel it was safe to send them home,” Merritt says. “That’s when I decided to write that [climate change] in their chart, because it was certainly impacting their reason for admission.”

Merritt said he didn’t realize at the time that hundreds of people were dying across the province due to the extreme heat, as recently confirmed by the BC Coroners Service.

“I think it was important to write it down for accuracy in looking at the underlying factors. It may not have changed much for that person’s admission that I wrote that on the chart. But I also wrote it down because it’s an upsetting thing to see patients come in, especially vulnerable patients, affected by these things.

“I was also worried about the bigger picture. I was upset thinking about my children and the fact the heat was probably going to bring more fires. Partly I was writing that down out of frustration thinking these underlying causes need to be acknowledged.”

Merritt stressed that climate change is not a diagnosis, but he thinks it ought to be tracked as a factor, “the same way we can track COVID or deaths caused by tobacco. We need to be tracking the underlying impacts from climate change and other planetary health issues so we can recognize the costs and try to deal with them.”

Merritt said his group, which was founded in June, also wants the health care sector to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions.

“As health care professionals, part of our role is advocacy in terms of the health of our patients. To be healthy we need the planet to be healthy.”



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