Vancouver medical health officer says climate change puts many at risk

By Catherine Garrett and The Canadian Press

Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief medical health officer says every community within her region is at risk of harm because of the changing climate. 

Dr. Patricia Daly says those risks from climate extremes are different in each community under the authority, which encompasses 1.25 million people, depending on geography and demographics. 

In her first report since the COVID-19 pandemic, Daly says climate change presents a range of health risks, including extreme heat, wildfire smoke, flooding, and droughts.

“In public health, we know that the existential threat to our population is climate change. This is something that as medical health officers, our public health team, we have been working to mitigate climate change and adapt to the changes that we have been seeing for years now,” said Daly.

“The purpose of this report is to look at local data important to the communities in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.”

The report warns that drinking water systems in many smaller communities in the region are at risk of disruption or failure during floods and drought. 

It points to the prolonged drought on the Sunshine Coast in 2022 as an example, as access to water was restricted for the 22,000 residents during the local state of emergency. 

The report explains that Indigenous communities have identified changes to the region’s climate are affecting their ability to access traditional foods and medicines, including fish, berries, and roots. 

Wildfires have damaged hunting and fishing grounds along with burial grounds and other sacred sites, they add.

“These changes create obstacles for many Indigenous people to engage in cultural practices, potentially impacting nutritional and spiritual health and wellbeing,” reads the report, in part.

Daly says significant work is already underway from all levels of government, Indigenous communities, and community partners.

Heat and health

She is calling for better support for older adults and people with disabilities during extreme heat events.

According to a recent survey from the health authority about indoor temperatures during hot weather, 75 per cent of participants without air conditioning reported temperatures of 26°C or above, which is a threshold for increased risk.

A report from the BC Coroners Service after the June 2021 heat dome event said more than 600 people died due to the record-setting temperatures. It made several recommendations on how to counter another such disaster. 

Among Daly’s 17 recommendations are calls for municipal and provincial building codes to be updated with rental standards that require cooling features and improvements to indoor air quality levels to mitigate wildfire smoke. 

Her report adds high-density neighborhoods would benefit from additional tree planting and neighborhood green spaces, and recommends working with young people in schools to address climate anxiety. 

“We don’t want people to not have a feeling of hope going forward,” said Daly. 

“So many great minds are addressing the challenge of climate change. I hope that this report will be one of hope, that moving forward, we can mitigate and adapt to the reality of climate change.”

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