Dr. Kyle Merritt says he and other Nelson doctors are noticing the effects of climate change on their patients.
Merritt is a family practitioner in Nelson who is also the head of the emergency ward at Kootenay Lake Hospital.
“I don’t think people realize the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change on human health,” Merritt says. “Working with patients directly, we are actually starting to see the health effects of climate change now. It’s not just something that is going to happen in the future.”
On Nov. 4, he and 20 members of the Nelson group Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health, supported by about 20 others, met in front of city hall in a demonstration to urge governments to act quickly on climate change. A similar protest took place at the legislature in Victoria on the same day.
The BC Coroners Service recently published an estimate that 595 people died in the province due to the heat wave between June 18 and Aug. 12.
Merritt doesn’t sound surprised by this. He told the Nelson Star the hot nights during the 2021 summer heat wave were hard on many people.
“It wasn’t cooling off at night, and we were seeing people coming in with heat exhaustion, heat stroke, that sort of thing. We were trying to figure out how do we cool people off acutely, which we’ve never really had to figure out before.”
He gave an example of a woman in her 70s with multiple ongoing health problems, living alone, with low socio-economic status and no air conditioning.
“She ends up in the emergency department with her underlying health conditions having gotten worse — diabetes, heart condition, and she’s not managing.”
Wildfire smoke exacerbates problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he says, and people with asthma usually carry their puffers in the winter because they are more likely to get colds then.
But recently a pediatrician wrote him a note about a patient who should go on a preventive puffer in the summer because we are expecting smoke. Merritt says this was an unusual request, but possibly a sign of the times.
He said he has noticed that the summer heat and smoke affects people’s mental health: anxiety about the future, about their children, about the impact on businesses and employment.
Already-existing mental health conditions can be exacerbated by the smoke.
“People that actually have underlying serious mental health conditions like depression, anxiety or PTSD, when the smoke hits, it really makes things worse for a lot of folks, especially those people with PTSD. It can really make them feel trapped, socked in, cause flashbacks.”
He said many patients have specifically named the summer smoke as the cause of their distress.
“That was the thing that really made an impact on me, seeing all these people with mental health problems coming out and attributing it to the smoke as the trigger.”