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Region gets funds to study health effects of climate change

Regional efforts to assess and react to the health threats of climate change just got a $300,000 boost from Ottawa.

The Health Canada funding was announced last week following a joint proposal by Region of Waterloo Public Health and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. Over the next three years, the money will allow officials in the area to look at the impacts of rising temperatures, extreme weather and an influx north of certain pests and the illnesses they may spread, from Lyme disease to West Nile virus.

“We’re looking to develop a climate change and health vulnerability assessment,” explained Chris Komorowski, Waterloo Region’s manager, health hazard prevention and management.

The partnership with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph made sense to avoid any duplication of efforts, as the two areas share many similarities, he noted.

A review of climate-change readiness has been mandated by the province, with the new funding allowing it to move ahead sooner.

“This has helped us fast-track that process,” said Komorowski.

With the money, the two health units will work with a consultant, ICLEI Canada, a national non-profit organization, to coordinate information among stakeholders such as municipalities, emergency services, academia and utilities.

The review process will help determine the largest health risks associated with climate change, assessing all the variables.

“This will help inform a climate-adaptation plan, with a health focus,” he said, noting it will assess the vulnerabilities.

Among the factors to be studied are rising temperatures and the increased prevalence of extreme weather.

“We’re expecting to have quite an increase in the amount of extreme heat days and heatwaves,” said Komorowski.

Where today an average year has 10 days where temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius, that number is expected to reach 30 days by 2050, and 60 days by 2080.

“Now’s the time to look at how we can manage that.”

Extreme weather – droughts, heavy rainfall and flooding, and winter freezing rain, for instance – will also take a toll on the region, including the health of its residents. Beyond the physical, those impacts could include mental health issues related to coping with events such as flooding, he suggested.

Along with the increased probability of news pests and diseases, climate change could have indirect health impacts on drinking water, for instance, and even the prospect of power outages brings with it concerns for food safety, Komorowski added.

“There really are a wide variety of impacts.”

Identify the potential effects and who might be most vulnerable to them is the first stage of the new research project, eventually leading to a plan for dealing with the changes.

“This will help inform a climate-adaptation plan, with a health focus,” he said of the newly funded work, noting there will be no simple solutions. “It’s a long-term project to do this.

“We’re setting the foundation.”

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