Global warming is more harmful for people with respiratory problems, warns specialist society

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 02 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3530
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Brussels

    The estimated increase in the risk of premature death among people with respiratory problems that would result from a 1°C rise in global temperature is more than double that in the rest of the population, the European Respiratory Society says.

    As pressure mounts on governments to agree tougher measures to tackle climate change at negotiations in Copenhagen shortly before Christmas, the society is urging policy makers and health professionals to pay greater attention to the effects of global warming on people with asthma, rhinosinusitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and respiratory tract infections.

    In a position statement published in its journal (European Respiratory Journal doi:10.1183/09031936.00003409) the society points out various factors that could all affect respiratory diseases in the short and long term. These include extreme temperatures, changes in air pollution, floods, damp housing, thunderstorms, changes in allergen disposition and consequent allergies, forest fires, and dust storms.

    Its research shows that an increase in temperature of 1°C would produce a 1-3% increase in all cause mortality in the general population but a 6% increase among people with respiratory illnesses.

    The society emphasises the need for more research into improving predictive models, supplemented by continuous prospective measurement and assessment of the key exposures that affect respiratory health.

    The society recommends that health professionals receive more education on the consequences of global warming “to ensure that patients are adequately informed of how changing weather patterns could affect their health and how medications could affect their sensitivity to heatwaves.”

    It also advises that respiratory physicians should check on vulnerable patients, carrying out medical assessments ahead of the summer season, and should advise on routine care, including fluid intake and adjustment of drug treatments during hot weather.

    Jon Ayres, director of the Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Birmingham and lead author of the position statement, notes that much higher temperatures in the summer have a “marked” effect on patients with lung diseases.

    He said, “If we can provide better warning systems and information for respiratory patients and encourage stronger [European Union] action to mitigate the effects of climate change fewer people will die unnecessarily.”

    The report says that climate change will alter the incidence of some infections, with some, such as tuberculosis, increasing, while others, such as respiratory syncytial virus infections, become less of a problem. The timing and duration of respiratory syncytial virus infections have already changed since the mid-1990s, with the season ending earlier and attacks becoming less severe as temperatures have risen.

    Although advocating regulatory change to improve air quality through the introduction of more stringent standards for vehicle and industry emissions, the society also emphasises the need for lifestyle changes to reduce energy consumption.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3530

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