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New report predicts impacts of climate change on health of Waterloo region residents

Region's health unit expects to see more skin cancers, heat-related illness and death, respiratory illness, flooding and zoonotic diseases over the next few decades

A new report that details how climate change will impact Waterloo region residents paints a grim picture of the next few decades as local health units prepare to deal with an expected rise in heat-related deaths, skin cancers, respiratory illness and zoonotic diseases.

The Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Assessment, which will be presented at the region's community services committee meeting next week, is the result a study commissioned by Health Canada in 2019 and implemented jointly by the Region of Waterloo Public Health and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health.

The $300,000 study took three years to complete and involved various government agencies and academics with a goal of increasing public awareness about the impacts of climate change on human health and planning to build resilience in the local health care system to deal with those impacts.

"According to recent studies, Canada has been warming at roughly double the global average over the last six decades" and could see a change of 3 to 4°C over the next century.

Temperatures are predicted to rise in all seasons, increasing the number of nights we experience above 20˚C and extreme heat days, where daytime highs go above 30˚C. 

The report says heat waves will become more common, particularly in urban areas due to the urban heat island effect, which pushes temperatures 1 to 3°C higher than those of rural surroundings.

Extreme heat is identified as a key issue of concern in the study, particularly among vulnerable populations like recent immigrants and individuals with low socio-economic status.

Health risks from extreme heat are the highest priority among all populations, followed by health risks posed by poor air quality, and flooding.

The report says the region expects to see an increase in skin cancers and eye diseases from ultraviolet radiation exposure; more respiratory and cardiovascular diseases due to poor air quality; extreme weather leading to an increased risk for local flooding events, and favourable conditions for the expansion of vector-borne diseases.

The report says that "while risks related to food-and-water-borne illnesses, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and exotic zoonoses" rank as moderate to low now, "these risks increase both in terms of likelihood and consequence in the future."

Some adaptive measures proposed by the study include providing cooling centres and air-conditioned public spaces, and surveillance systems to generate alerts and track heat-related illnesses and cold-related injuries in the community.

Emission reduction targets are also highlighted as a way to reduce airborne pollution.

In conjunction with the health vulnerability assessment, the region is in the process of developing a "corporate climate transformation and energy transition strategy" to support decision-making in the municipality's move away from fossil fuels.