WATCH | Bhekisisa: Can climate change make pollution and lung diseases worse?

Mia Malan sat down with public health specialist Caradee Wright to find out more about the challenges climate change will bring to health systems — and what we should do about them.

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Khehla Mahlangu, 52, and Jeremiah Maseko, in his early fifties, both live in eMbalenhle, a township on the edge of Secunda on the Mpumalanga highveld. Both have lung problems and had to quit their jobs. 

“It’s the effect of air pollution,” Mahlangu told Bhekisisa. “Breathing becomes harder each day.”

Mpumalanga has some of the dirtiest air in the country because of the many large coal-burning industries there, including Sasol’s petrochemical plant and three Eskom power stations which are within an hour’s drive of the highveld town. 

Life will, unfortunately, become even harder in the coming years for people like Mahlangu and Maseko. Why? Because climate change means the air is getting warmer — which for people with lung diseases such as them, for instance, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, in which the airways narrow and make someone short of breath), will make breathing more difficult.

Our industries, cars and farms put lots of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the air. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, almost forming a blanket around the air. 

When too much of these gases go into the air — like from humans’ coal-burning activities over the past 150 years or so — the atmosphere close to the Earth’s surface becomes warmer than it should. The planet’s rising air temperature — called global warming — drives the change in long-term weather patterns, aka climate change. 

Higher temperatures are a concern, especially for people who are already ill with a respiratory disease, says Caradee Wright, a public health specialist who leads the Climate Change and Health Research Programme at the Medical Research Council. 

“For example, in someone who has asthma, an attack is often triggered by air pollution. But when it’s very hot, [the body’s] ability to [deal with] heat is compromised because the person faces an existing health challenge,” she explained during the latest episode of Bhekisisa’s TV programme Health Beat.

It’s a double whammy for people who live in areas with badly polluted air, because burning coal not only puts more and more greenhouse gases into the air but also makes the air dirtier.

Changing weather patterns — for example, excessive heat, extreme cold or intense rainfall — will put pressure on public health systems. In a country like South Africa, where public hospitals and clinics are already overburdened, it will mean that people will struggle even more to get the care they need. 

The World Health Organisation says to fix this, the health effects of climate change need to be considered in every policy that guides how governments care for people. 

But the national health department is not quite there yet, Bono Nemukula, the department’s deputy director for environmental health, said during a Bhekisisa-hosted panel discussion on the effects of climate change and health earlier this month. 

Though some policies have been drawn up, it’s not yet clear what type of data needs to be tracked to shape plans that will bring change, says Nemukula. “We have indicators [in] the District Health Information System. But when we look at them, they don't give us more information in terms of us coming up with interventions, especially on climate change.”

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

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