50 thousand pollution victims per year: Is climate change shortening our lives?

Luc Williams

The impact of climate change and pollution on public health

Specialists talked about this during the think tank's debate on Thursday Medical Reason of Stateentitled “Climate for health”.

They recalled that 50,000 people die in Poland due to air pollution. people per year, i.e. a medium-sized city.

Extreme weather phenomena and their consequences for health

“Climate change not only threatens the environment, but also has direct and indirect effects on public health,” she said Maria Andrzejewskadirector UNEP/GRID-Warsawa center affiliated with the United Nations (UN) Environment Program (UNEP).

The scientific data she cited shows that 2023 was the warmest year in recorded history. “The impact of climate change on human health is becoming more and more recognized both on a global and regional scale,” said the specialist. The most severe are the direct health effects of extreme weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, floods, heat waves and droughts, which are occurring on an unprecedented scale. Climate change also affects the distribution and activity of vectors of various diseases, including ticks and mosquitoes, and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue. Water and air pollution also contribute to the spread of infectious diseases.

The growth of world population and industry as a cause of climate change

Prof. Bolesław Samolińskimanager Department of Public and Environmental Health and Department of Environmental Hazard Prevention and Allergology, Medical University of Warsawexplained that climate warming and environmental pollution are natural consequences of demographic changes, i.e. a rapid increase in the world's human population.

“Let us remember that 1 billion people appeared on Earth about 170 years ago, and since then the world population has increased eight times,” said the specialist. This was associated with an increase in demand, among others. for energy and food and with the increase in industrialization, therefore it automatically accelerated climate change. “As much as 14 percent carbon dioxide in the air comes from animal production. (…) I'm not talking about the fact that meat used to be on the table once a week, and today it is three times a day,” said Prof. Samoliński.

Longer human lifespan, climate change and environmental pollution

He added that climate change is accompanied by very dangerous demographic changes – related to the increase in the average life expectancy of people. “Compared to the beginning of the 20th century, average life expectancy has doubled – from 47 years to over 80 years,” he emphasized. Due to this, a population appeared which at the end of the 19th century, when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the first pension system, there was almost none at all. Almost no one lived to the age of 70 then. “Today we retire at the age of 60-65, and the average life expectancy in Poland is 74 years for men and 82 for women. A new social group is being created, which is – next to children – the most sensitive to climate change and environmental pollution,” said Prof. Samoliński.

As he explained, this is due to the fact that in old age the body has less ability to respond to changes in the environment and to regenerate. In addition, seniors suffer from many chronic lifestyle diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and others.

According to prof. Samoliński, the most common victims of heatwaves are – apart from children – the elderly. Sudden changes in atmospheric pressure are very difficult for seniors to tolerate and may cause strokes or collapse.

Air pollution and health problems

Andrzejewska pointed out that air pollution, including ozone level increase at the Earth's surface, it may contribute to the development of asthma, but also to deaths due to cardiovascular reasons.

Hematooncologist prof. Alicja Chybickachairwoman Parliamentary TeamParents for Climate“, reminded that changes taking place in the environment contribute to genetic changes that underlie the development of cancer and other diseases. This applies to people of all ages.

Lack of public awareness about climate and health

According to experts, Polish society is not at all educated about the impact of climate change on people's health and quality of life.

“Poles are rebelling, they don't want to give up meat. And let's remember that Livestock farms emit a huge amount of CO2” – explained prof. Chybicka. She added that it is difficult to convince people to switch from cars to bicycles or to use public transport; farmers do not want the rules to be introduced European Green Deal (a set of European Commission initiatives that are intended to lead to climate neutrality in Europe by 2050 – PAP).

Gaps in medical education regarding air pollution

Prof. Tadeusz Zielonkachairman Coalition of Doctors and Scientists for Clean Air, noted that it was only in the 21st century that American oncologists proved that heart attacks occur more often on days with high air pollution. “This is knowledge from the last dozen or so years, and the average age of doctors in Poland is 55, so they are not educated on this subject,” said the expert. He recalled that his study shows that patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have greater knowledge about the impact of environmental pollution on health (COPD) than specialist doctors.

Energy and health – an overlooked aspect in Polish regulations

Deputy Minister of Climate and Environment Miłosz Motyka emphasized that in Poland there is no correlation between the energy transformation and the length and quality of life. “We are talking about energy transformation and renewable energy sources (RES) only in terms of economic calculation, not in terms of the environment and health. The health aspect is completely ignored,” he said.

The need to improve public awareness and ecological education

As he noted, in order to change this, it is crucial to improve public awareness and climate and ecological education. Today, this is the most important challenge for politicians, local governments and scientists. “We need to do the work and show that the energy transformation is not a European Union policy that imposes high bills on us, but a transformation that is absolutely necessary for our health as well as for the economic calculation,” explained the deputy minister.

In his opinion, this work has not been done in recent years. “We were lied to that there is no relationship between health and the use of fossil fuels. If a decision had been made to accelerate the energy transformation a few years ago, (…) we would not be talking about the cost of investing in renewable energy sources, but about the profits generated by clean energy; because energy would be cheaper and we wouldn't have to pay extra for our bills,” he said. He noted that moving away from fossil fuels is profitable for us because energy based on coal and fossil sources “is simply expensive energy.” In his opinion, becoming independent from fossil fuels is also an important element of our country's security. (PAP)

Joanna Morga


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