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European Respiratory Society issues consensus statement on climate change and respiratory health

Guidance on how global warming can be addressed in clinical practice has been outlined by the European Respiratory Society (ERS) in its latest consensus statement on climate change and respiratory health.

Published in the European Respiratory Journal, the statement describes climate change as ‘an unfolding major planetary and health crisis’, and a major threat to those with common lung conditions.

This, it says, is linked to the frequent and extreme weather events, prolonged aeroallergen seasons and poorer air quality associated with climate change, which can lead directly to a worsening of health and an increased risk of death.

Traditionally, clinicians have been involved in climate change adaptation strategies such as identifying vulnerable groups and providing advice on how they can protect themselves during heatwaves, for example.

However, the ERS says this clinical role has now expanded to focus on both human and planetary health, which includes contributing to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the ERS, subsequent changes to clinical practice could therefore include promoting green prescriptions such as inhalers; focusing efforts on smoking eradication; and encouraging patients, where appropriate, to engage with nature, take active modes of transport and make more sustainable food choices.

Professor Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, chair of the ERS Environment and Health Committee and professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Copenhagen, who was one of the authors, said: ‘As respiratory doctors and nurses, we need to be aware of these new risks and do all we can to help alleviate patients’ suffering. We also need to explain the risks to our patients so they can protect themselves from adverse effects of climate change.‘

Climate change and lung health

The consensus statement also highlights that climate change will have a disproportionately greater adverse effect on individuals living with respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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It outlines some of the health risks of climate change such as a decline in lung function, increases in allergic responses and/or new cases of chronic (asthma, COPD, lung cancer) or infectious (pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, Covid-19) respiratory diseases.

It also identifies a higher risk of exacerbations for existing respiratory diseases, increased use of medication, emergency department visits, hospitalisations and death.

The fact that children are more susceptible to the impact of climate change on lung health is also highlighted, including the fact that the prevention of chronic respiratory disease should start as early as possible as many chronic lung diseases in adults have childhood origins.

The burden of global warming

Several previous reviews have provided extensive summaries of the different mechanisms by which climate change affects respiratory health, as well as outlining adaptation strategies. The latest statement provides an overview of all major pathways linking climate change with lung health.

While it summarises all of the available evidence, the authors also recognise some gaps in current knowledge. For instance, there is the need for further research to fully map the burden of climate change on respiratory diseases under different global warming scenarios and to understand underlying biological mechanisms, as well as identifying pathways of adaptation that can be translated into public health policies.

Professor Jovanovic Andersen, added: ‘Climate change affects everyone’s health, but arguably, respiratory patients are among the most vulnerable. These are people who already experience breathing difficulties and they are far more sensitive to our changing climate. Their symptoms will become worse, and for some this will be fatal.

‘Air pollution is already damaging our lungs. Now the effects of climate change are becoming a major threat to respiratory patients.’

Indeed, the deleterious respiratory effects of the particulate matter contained within air pollution, are already known to provide a mechanism through which lung cancer can develop among individuals who have never smoked.

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