Researchers say death by climate change “substantially underreported”

Michael Weaver 5 June 2020 14
Climate Emergency Rally at Parliament House.

A protestor at the Climate Emergency Rally at Parliament House in February this year. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Two researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) say that heat-related deaths have been “substantially underreported” and are calling for climate change to be added to death certificates.

Dr Arnagretta Hunter and co-author Dr Simon Quilty of the ANU Medical School say the amount of deaths attributed to excessive natural heat is at least 50 times more than recorded on death certificates.

Their research has been published in The Lancet Planetary Health, with figures showing that during the past 11 years, 340 deaths in Australia were recorded as being due to excessive heat, but statistical analysis found 36,765 deaths could have been attributed to heat.

“Climate change is a killer, but we don’t acknowledge it on death certificates,” co-author Dr Hunter said.

“We can make a diagnosis of a disease like coronavirus, but we are less literate in environmental determinants like hot weather or bushfire smoke.”

The region sweltered through its hottest January since records began in 1939, with the temperature 1.52°C above the long-term average, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Canberra Airport recorded five days above 40°C, a record for any month and the calendar year, with an unprecedented four in a row from 15 to 18 January. Canberra Airport’s mean maximum temperature was a record 34.5°C, 6.3°C above average and 1.7°C above the previous mark set in 2017. The mean maximum was also a January high in Tuggeranong at 34.1°C, beating its previous record by just over two degrees.

Dr Arnagretta Hunter

Dr Arnagretta Huntersaid many Australians died from smoke exposure from the bushfires. Photo: Supplied.

Dr Hunter said Australia’s heat is the most dominant risk posed by climate change.

“We know the summer bushfires were a consequence of extraordinary heat and drought and people who died during the bushfires were not just those fighting fires – many Australians had early deaths due to smoke exposure,” Dr Hunter said.

“There is a second component on a death certificate which allows for pre-existing conditions and other factors.

“If you have an asthma attack and die during heavy smoke exposure from bushfires, the death certificate should include that information.”

The new analysis suggests Australia’s national heat-related mortality rate is around two per cent.

“Climate change is the single greatest health threat that we face globally even after we recover from coronavirus,” Dr Hunter said.

The researchers say death certification needs to be modernised to reflect the impact of large-scale environmental events.

“We are successfully tracking deaths from coronavirus, but we also need healthcare workers and systems to acknowledge the relationship between our health and our environment,” she said.

A similar study earlier this year, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that the summer’s hazardous air quality and bushfire smoke may have cost 31 Canberrans their lives.

The study did not analyse pre-existing conditions but measured what public health experts describe as “excess deaths”, or the factor by which observed mortality rates exceed expected mortality rates when major risks like heatwaves, bushfires, pandemics, famine or war are present.

The study estimated that in the ACT, 229 people were admitted to hospital – 82 for cardiovascular problems, and 147 for respiratory problems – while 89 people attended the emergency department because of asthma-related issues.

There were a total of 417 estimated excess deaths because of the bushfire smoke and 4,456 hospitalisations and emergency department visits across NSW, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT.

Environmental health expert from ANU, Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, said bushfire smoke is a major public health concern.

“These very small particles in bushfire smoke can penetrate deep into the respiratory system inducing inflammation and even translocate into the bloodstream,” Professor Vardoulakis said.

“Mortality rates have been found to increase in Sydney on days with high bushfire smoke pollution.”

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14 Responses to Researchers say death by climate change “substantially underreported”
Monty Ki Monty Ki 7:28 am 10 Jun 20

Science is data collection, analysis and reporting. It is the same scientific method used to identify and deal with COVID19 as it is to identify and deal with climate change. Yet people seem to "believe in" one and not the other. Science doesn't care if you believe in it or not. The data is there. If you choose not to act on the data, or support action based on the data, then the outcome will occur, whether you believe in it or not. So use the data to make sure we have the desired outcome. We did well using the data to address COVID19. Other nations did not. We need to use the data to address climate change, or we will suffer the consequences, as we have already begun to. Science is data. Use the data.

Stu McRae Stu McRae 6:08 pm 07 Jun 20

ANU might cut it's costs if it is short of funds starting with axing those researchers.

M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 11:43 am 07 Jun 20

Bear this in mind next time you hear universities cry out for more funding.

    Peter Marshall Peter Marshall 1:08 pm 07 Jun 20

    Yes, we need far more research on climate change. It is an existential threat to our species.

Monica Tiffen Monica Tiffen 11:32 am 07 Jun 20

Is Old age classified as Climate Change???

Monica Tiffen Monica Tiffen 11:31 am 07 Jun 20

I have heard EVERYTHING, now!!!

    Dorsia Darling Dorsia Darling 11:02 pm 07 Jun 20

    And yet your ears and your mind remains firmly closed 🤔

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:23 am 10 Jun 20

    Monica Tiffen, obviously not, by your own admission.

Acton Acton 10:35 am 07 Jun 20

Besides ignoring pre-existing ailments, did the researchers factor in population growth and a higher proportion of people in aged cohorts as an explanation for an increased number of deaths? Probably not. Beware of academics manipulating data to ensure continuation of their own lucrative research grants.

Rob Tomsen Rob Tomsen 11:00 pm 06 Jun 20

Let’s just stop summer 😂😂😂😂😂

Ray Ez Ray Ez 10:28 pm 06 Jun 20

Awesome! So Wuhan flu is irrelevant and climate change is the devil! Keep up the laughs!

Carole Ford Carole Ford 10:03 pm 06 Jun 20

There are probably millions of deaths a year that can be attributed to air/water pollution, this pollution is cumulative and adds fuel to the fire that is climate change. When sea level rise becomes more dramatic in 30 years time, (or sooner), thousands of miles of vulnerable coastline will become uninhabitable and refugees in their millions will die from famine, exposure and conflict. Most of the losses will be seen in the low socio economic cohorts, where there is little if any medical help, no alternative housing and a massive over-population problem.

David Ward David Ward 9:19 pm 06 Jun 20

The world has truly gone mad.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:24 pm 06 Jun 20

“The study did not analyse pre-existing conditions”

Nothing to see here folks, move on.

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