Saturday, January 9, 2010

Urban campers beware

From what I gather, the northern hemisphere is really freakin' cold at the moment. Which is why I found it somewhat surreal to read a journal article from 2009 entitled "Health of the homeless and climate change" proudly published in the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 86, No. 4.

The authors (who are from Toronto, Canada - which makes me think they must not look outside their windows very often) cast around for a highly vulnerable population, and presumably because ethnic migrants, indigenous Canadians, GLBTQ and disabled feminists were already taken, hit upon the homeless to champion against global warming. They actually seemed quite excited that no-one else had quantified the effects of climate change on the homeless. Ground floor score!

Not ones to mess around, they focused on four main areas of concern:

1. Increased heat waves. (Of course. Howhever, whats fantastic is how they cite the urban heat island effect to posit that MORE people are going to die in cities due to global warming. What, you can't have an urban heat island effect when analysing surface station temperature measurements, but you can have one when calculating the death toll? Double standards much.)

2. Increased air pollution. (This bit has to be read to be believed, I mean increased surface ozone? Seriously? Pick me some cherries while you're out on that limb.)

3. Increased severity of floods and storms. (They used Hurricane Katrina as a case study. High five for bad taste and shamelessly cashing in on other peoples misery.)

4. The changing distribution of West Nile Virus. (Kind of niche, is rabies in the homeless passe these days or something? Someone tell the writers of House. The authors grudgingly noted that malaria was unlikely in Canada unless there was a catastrophic public health fail, so any mosquito borne disease will do, right?)

Heat wave induced deaths tends to be the mainstay of predicted global warming mortality. The authors note with horror that:
the number of days per year above 30°C has almost doubled in the city of Toronto from the period 1961–1990 to the period 1995–2005

As an Australian, I would beg forgiveness for a moment while I double over in laughter and sarcastically yell "Oh, My GOD! We're all going to die!!!". Over 30°C?! When I was a kid they didn't even have to think about letting you go home from school until the mercury topped 40°C, and even then they often didn't bother. I used to have to play compulsory touch RUGBY when it was 35°C on sports day. Several times in my life I can remember summer heat reaching over 46°C in major capital cities. Welcome to Oz. Last time I checked, we don't all expire every summer. In fact, more people die here in winter, which isn't exactly blizzard material. (I remember the first time I saw snow. I was a teenager and it was in New Zealand.)

Undeterred, the authors of the paper state that:
In New York City, summer heat-related mortality could more than double by the 2050s, and more than triple by the 2080s. Similar projections are made for four large Canadian cities: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Windsor.

Go tell that to a dead homeless guy who froze to death under a bridge near you. And didn't Toronto just issue an extreme cold weather alert?
"The City of Toronto recognized that extreme cold weather can be life-threatening to homeless people or individuals who spend a lot of time outdoors. That's why we issued the alert," said Patricia Trott, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto.

The authors of the homeless v. climate change paper do note that the possibility of balmy nights isn't all doom and gloom:
In Canada, cold-related mortality may decline by as much as 45–60% by 2050. Furthermore, respiratory illnesses such as influenza may be reduced slightly by warmer winters.
But then, just in case you were mentally firing up the bbq and putting a six pack on ice, they deep six any positives almost immediately:
Most research has suggested that while there will be health gains, they will be minor and will be outweighed by the adverse health impacts of climate change.

Because climate change is bad, M'kay, but just in case, lets have a look at the figures.

(After banging my head against the portal that is Statistics Canada for a while looking for seasonal mortality rates, I shamefacedly found exactly what I was looking for at Wattsupwiththat), the following figures are for Canada:

Which looks to me like a bit of a seasonal trend. The Wattsupwiththat article then shows figures that calculate the average excess deaths above the mean for Canada as being in the order of 5, 600 per year. How many lives are they expecting to lose if the temperature increases by a measly 2 or so average degrees that would negate saving the lives of what they say could be up to 60% of 5, 600?

Oft cited as a case study (and referenced by the Canadian authors) for the potential mortality in a heat wave was the European heat wave of 2001. However, when Russian researchers analysed the excess deaths in Moscow of the 2001 heatwave versus winter excess deaths during cold spells in 2006 (bearing in mind what constitutes a cold snap to a Russian), they worked out up to 40% of the excess heat wave deaths were brought forward by only a matter of days, which brought down the real tally substantially. (They called it "Harvesting, or short-term mortality displacement", which I fully intend to randomly drop into future conversations. "I didn't screw up the meds, the patient just suffered a short-term mortality displacement.") The overall excess deaths during the cold snaps remained higher, although primarily in an over 75 year old age bracket.

Now if I was naked and drunk, and someone said I had a choice between being dropped off in Minnesota or Barbados in January, I know which one I would pick. (Psst. For the unusually dense, I'd choose the tropical one with the rum.) If you have trouble deciding, then congratulations! You, too, could be the author of a peer reviewed paper such as this.

1 comment:

  1. Hell, I cycled home (in Sydney) just before Christmas and it was 39 degrees. Should I be dead? Have I missed something? I just took the usual precautions - slowed down (less exertion), doubled my fluid intake and spent a lot longer under the shower when I got home.

    When at school in the 80s, we were allowed to undo our top shirt button and loosen our tie when the temp hit the old 100 farenheit in the classroom.


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