The Body’s Battle Against a Changing Climate


When the human body offered no other explanation, the world of medicine turned to nature. 

No textbook description, no quick WebMD search (yes, they swear it was not cancer), nor even a dive into rare case studies could have foreseen this woman’s fate. Canadian doctor Kyle Merritt arrived at an unprecedented diagnosis: climate change. This diagnosis feels somewhat spiritual—a healthy planet equals a healthy human. A feverish, flooded, temperamental, unstable planet led to the fate of this patient.

When I first heard about the diagnosis, I thought it referred to a mental health-related crisis. There are certainly stressors involved with living on a dying planet. However, this woman in her 70s was experiencing the physical ramifications of the climate crisis. She lived in a trailer without access to air conditioning during a summer of record heat waves and wildfires. Beyond already suffering from diabetes and a heart condition, she struggled to stay hydrated. She saw her breathing issues exacerbated, finding it harder to keep her asthma at bay. 

After an unprecedented swarm of patients showed symptoms of exhaustion and dehydration, Merritt could no longer ignore the smoky, smoggy cauldron incubating these effects. Merritt told Glacier Media, “If we’re not looking at the underlying cause, and we’re just treating the symptoms, we’re just gonna keep falling further and further behind.”

The summer of 2021 in Canada was defined by record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, and suffocating smog. Throughout July and August, a string of wildfires caused air quality to plummet. The air quality was 43 times worse compared to safe levels.

From heat waves to poor air quality, the cause of the patients’ dehydration, exhaustion, and breathing issues seemed obvious: climate change. This woman was not only elderly, but economically disadvantaged, putting her in the most vulnerable category of people to be affected by climate crisis-related symptoms. 

According to an open letter to the BMJ, in the last twenty years, heat-related mortality for people over sixty-five years of age has jumped by over fifty percent. Higher temperatures have caused issues related to dehydration, renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, allergies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality. 

A UN report that cited WHO data declared that climate change is responsible for at least 150,000 deaths annually—and that number is expected to double by 2030. Global warming not only causes the aforementioned conditions, but also a rise in infectious diseases. Most notably, in tropical regions, an increase in temperatures leads to an increase in the mosquito populations, further increasing the risk of catching malaria, dengue, and other insect-borne infections. Our bodies are the underdogs in this battle against climate change.

In 2013, nine-year-old Ella Roberta Adoo Kissi-Debrah succumbed to “Acute Respiratory Failure.” In 2020, the coroner officially concluded that the cause of death was air pollution. It took seven years to realize that the terrible air quality was exacerbating her asthma symptoms. Ella had been admitted to the hospital 27 times over a three-year period with life-threatening asthma. She was unable to clear the mucus that continually made her lungs collapse. Ella suffered from cough syncope and reflex anoxic seizures. These conditions result in loss of consciousness and spasms during coughing episodes. According to the coroner, “Air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbation of her asthma.” She battled the very air she breathed.

Rosamund Adoo Kissi Debrah, Ella’s mother, told Energy Live News that someone in their neighborhood had been studying pollution measurements in the area. “In the evening when she had her last asthma attack,” said Debrah, “Lewisham had one of the worst air pollution episodes ever.” 

In response to this tragedy, Coroner Philip Barlow urged the government to set legal limits on particulate matter in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines—national limits at the time exceeded what WHO considered safe. Two million people within London live in areas that exceed legal limits for air pollution, and reports indicate that 10,000 people in London die each year from long-term air pollution exposure. In fact, the NIH has considered air pollution a carcinogen for years, capable of causing chronic, lifelong disability and illness. Air pollution is a public health crisis. It is toxic. It threatens our every breath.

As seen in the case of the “climate change” diagnosis and the “air pollution” diagnosis case, the detrimental effects of climate change disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. This includes poorer communities, children, older populations, ethnic minorities, and people with underlying health problems. These diagnoses are among the first of their kind, but will not be the last. By diagnosing the body’s battle against a changing climate, Kyle Merritt launched a call-to-action. Planetary health is human health. By saving the Earth, we are saving ourselves.

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