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Millions face potential health risks from climate change in UK, report warns

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n342 (Published 05 February 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n342
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Almost a third of people report suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after having their house flooded, highlighting the potential health risks from climate change for millions of UK residents, a new report1 has warned.

In a joint report published on 5 February, the Climate Coalition and the Priestley International Centre for Climate estimate that more than 12 million people in the UK are vulnerable to adverse health because of events made more likely by climate change such as heatwaves and major flooding.

Around 1.8 million people in the UK live in areas at significant risk of flooding, and this number could increase to 2.6 million in as little as 17 years, the report noted. Overall, those affected by flooding have been found to be as much as four times more likely, on average, to suffer mental health problems including depression, anxiety, or PTSD, than those unaffected by flooding, it added.

Close to 12 million UK residents are “dangerously vulnerable” to future summer heatwaves, with the elderly or people with pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease at particular risk, the report adds.

It highlights that in the UK, heat related mortality in people over 65 years increased by 21% between 2004 and 2018. In 2020, the UK experienced 16 “tropical nights” where the temperature remained above 20°C. These conditions were previously rare but are now occurring more frequently and are harmful to health, the report added.

The UK heatwaves in 2018 were made 30 times more likely by climate change and led to 8500 heat related deaths, the report added.

The Climate Coalition, whose members include the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the National Trust, Oxfam, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, said the trends highlighted the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach a zero carbon economy.

The report said that tackling climate change will bring health benefits including cleaner air, improved wellbeing, and reduced pressure on the NHS. If a quarter of the population in England cycled regularly and there was widespread use of electric bikes, all cause mortality could fall by 11%, it noted.

Scarlett McNally, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and council member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said, “Exercise is a miracle cure for health, and it should be recognised as the same for the climate. Active travel (like walking and cycling) is a ready made—and essential—climate and health improvement solution.”

In a forward to the report, The BMJ’s editor in chief Fiona Godlee, who advised and contributed to the report, urged health professionals to advocate for action. “The things we do to tackle the climate emergency will have vital benefits for our health and wellbeing: from removing polluting vehicles from our roads and increasing the amount of active travel on foot or bicycle, to making our homes and buildings safer and more efficient, and eating a healthier, more plant based diet,” she wrote. “This is our opportunity to create a healthier and more equal society.”

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