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Smog in New York due to wildfires in Canada

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Researchers warn of an increased risk of respiratory diseases. The consequences of climate change could make the situation even worse for the sick and chronically ill, and the overall number of people with such complaints could also increase. "We must do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of patients," medical scientists explain in the European Respiratory Journal.

They call on the EU to lower air pollution limits and bring them into line with the higher standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The researchers act on behalf of the European Respiratory Society, which represents more than 30,000 lung specialists from 160 countries.

Ozone, forest fires, particulate matter

According to the doctors, the climate crisis poses a risk: high temperatures and changing weather conditions would make the situation worse for people with respiratory or lung diseases, the experts write. The number of premature deaths from air pollution is already high: according to a report by the EU Environment Agency (EEA), an estimated 2020,27 people died in 238 in the 000 EU countries related to air pollution. In Germany, the estimated number of deaths was 28,900.

Above all, extreme weather events, which will increase in the future according to the World Climate Report, are poison for health. The researchers led by Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the University of Copenhagen, describe the following risks in the article:

  • When it's hot, high ozone pollution can occur, especially in cities. Ground-level ozone irritates the respiratory tract, causes coughing and difficulty breathing. In addition, it can aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

  • The consequences of forest fires can also have a negative impact on the state of health. The toxic smoke further exacerbates the already poor air quality.

  • More droughts could, for example, lead to dust storms and thus to high particulate matter pollution.

  • But heavy rain and flooding can also be toxic. This is because the moisture can cause mold indoors, among other things.

  • In addition, the burden of pollen is likely to increase and thus increase existing allergies.

According to the researchers, patients with chronic respiratory diseases, including those with already impaired lung function due to asthma, COPD, lung cancer or other lung diseases, are particularly at risk. In the case of more frequent extreme weather events, the risk of wheezing, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties or emergency rooms in hospitals and ultimately deaths increases.

Even healthy people are at risk. For example, heat or forest fires could increase allergic reactions, and more people could develop asthma, COPD or lung cancer.

Children are particularly at risk

"Climate change affects everyone's health, but respiratory patients are arguably among the most vulnerable," says Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Copenhagen and author of the report. "These are people who already suffer from breathing difficulties and are much more sensitive to climate change. Their symptoms will get worse and for some it can be fatal."

Children are even more affected by the climate crisis and air pollution because their lungs are still developing, they breathe in faster and thus two to three times more air than adults. According to one estimate, high levels of air pollution with pollutants such as particulate matter already lead to the premature death of more than 1200 children and adolescents in Europe every year. It also significantly increases the risk of disease for adolescents later in life, according to reports from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Less fossil fuels and greener cities

According to the researchers, climate protection is the main way to reduce the risks: If less oil, gas or coal were burned, not only could air quality improve, but the climate crisis could also be contained.

In addition, a redevelopment of cities can also alleviate the suffering of sick people: with more trees, shading of sidewalks, fewer concrete surfaces and petrol and diesel cars in the city centre.