Our health and wellbeing is shaped by many things in the world around us including social, economic and environmental factors such as climate change.
The effects of climate change on our health cannot be underestimated. Our good health depends on factors that will be significantly affected by the consequences of climate change: air quality, access to clean drinking water, sanitation and food. Climate disruption not only has potential impacts on our physical health; our wellbeing is dependent on benefits of our natural environment and future security.
Poor air quality is a major health risk causing lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Children, the elderly and citizens suffering from asthma and respiratory conditions are most affected.
The intensity of the severe "smog" problems which occurred in the 1980s/early 1990s has been significantly reduced primarily due to the ban on the selling, buying or burning of ‘smoky’ coal in certain urban areas. The use of low smoke fuels such as gas, oil and low smoke solid fuels significantly reduce the emissions of hazardous substances and are better for our health while saving you money.
As well as negative effects on health, air pollution has considerable economic impacts; cutting short lives, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity through lost working days. Air pollution also impacts the wider environment, affecting the quality of fresh water, soil, and ecosystems while significantly contributing to climate change.
Air quality in Ireland is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provides real-time, publicly accessible data from a number of monitoring stations nationally which allows you to check air quality in your area in relation to current international standards.
Our home heating fuels and vehicle emissions affect our air quality. Making more sustainable heating and transport choices where possible can have positive impacts on our health.
Safe and reliable water supplies are essential to public health and to social and economic progress. However, water sources can often become contaminated due to a number of factors.
There are an estimated 500,000 domestic wastewater treatment systems (example: septic tanks and treatment systems) in Ireland. Septic tanks and other systems should be maintained, inspected by an authorised inspector, and de-sludged regularly.
With roughly 170,000 private wells in Ireland it is vital for the health of families and communities who come into contact with this water that it is safe to drink. Assessments of the National Groundwater Monitoring Programme reveal that 30% of Irish wells are contaminated with E.Coli. Home owners should ensure their wells are in the best location possible and that they are constructed safely. Testing the water in the well on a regular basis, at least once a year, will reveal any issues and will alert you to any treatment or repairs that are needed. Grants may be available from your local authority if your well is more than seven years old.
Ireland’s food industry is secure and productive, sending food to lower producing countries, particularly in Europe. This has an inevitable impact on our greenhouse gas emissions – despite being one of the more carbon efficient countries in the EU.
Organisations like Origin Green are working with the industry to reduce emissions and invest in a more sustainable future where the production of safe, nutritious food comes through a viable food industry that protects and enhances the local environment and the local community.
Safe food is key for sustainable food security and it is increasingly important to protect our farms from chemical and biological pollution. A clean environment is essential for food to avoid contamination from poorly treated waste water, land spread wastes, contaminated fertilisers, badly managed farm chemicals or air pollutants.
Carbon Monoxide (also known as CO) is a colourless, odourless, poisonous gas and is a common cause of death all over the world. Approximately half of the deaths caused by CO poisonings are as a result from the inhalation of smoke from fires but you can be affected by CO coming from your heating systems. On average, between 1 and 2 people die each year in Ireland from unintentional CO poisoning in the home in incidents caused by domestic heating or other fossil fuel installations.
Carbon Monoxide alarms can be used to provide a warning to householders in the event of a dangerous build-up of CO, but regular inspection and maintenence of appliances, vents, flues and chimneys is also essential.
Lead is a metal which is found in soil, rocks, air and water. It is used for making batteries, roofing materials, pipes and other plumbing fittings. Lead is highly poisonous if swallowed or inhaled, causing disease of the blood, brain and nervous system.
Water does not usually contain lead when it leaves a water treatment plant, however, some homes built before or around the 1970s may have been fitted with lead pipes and plumbing which can allow lead to enter your internal water systems.
Houses and properties are tested at random for the presence of lead by Irish Water Irish Water and the Environmental Protection Agency publishes a yearly report of the results. If you have any concerns about your plumbing you should have it tested and, if it is made of lead, it should be replaced.
Radon is a carcinogenic gas that is formed in the ground by the radioactive decay of uranium, which is present in all rocks and soils. In Ireland, up to 300 cases of lung cancer each year are linked to radon exposure. Radon comes up from the ground and gets drawn into buildings as the air pressure is lower than outside. You can reduce the levels of radon in your home by improving ventilation throughout the house and under the floors. If levels are severe, a radon sump is the most effective method to address the issue.
Every day we use products in our home, which contain chemical formulations that can be hazardous to our health and the environment.
Where possible, choose products that have a lesser impact on the environment; many supermarkets and health food shops stock more environmental friendly products. You can also aim to purchase only the quantities of hazardous products that you really need so as to eliminate left overs.
Batteries are also hazardous and you should never throw waste batteries in your household bin. Bring them to your local recycling centre or leave them at a shop where batteries are sold, it’s free and you don’t have to buy any new batteries to avail of the service.
It isn’t just our physical health that can be affected by climate disruption. As we recognise the direct threats caused by our changing climate, our overall sense of security and wellbeing can also be affected.
If our access to clean air and water is taken away and our health deteriorates, our wellbeing also declines. With extreme weather events threatening our shelter and built environments, the stability of ‘home’ is under risk. Those with little access to resources will be most vulnerable to these impacts and those population groups at most risk will feel the effects first.
Considering that the scale of climate disruption can result in strong feelings of fear, guilt and powerlessness. That sense of not being able to do anything can be paralysing and, in the face of such a big problem, many people can be prevented from doing their bit to help.
Making individual, sustainable behaviour choices can really empower individuals to get involved in the effort to combat climate change. Leaving the car at home and getting public transport or cycling to work is a good start. You are helping to reduce emissions while getting some exercise, all positive steps for your wellbeing. An active lifestyle is vital for positive mental health and wellbeing; being active in nature has the further benefit of reducing mental stress and fatigue.
You can learn more about how our health is impacted by environmental factors on the following websites: