Climate change could be a hot mess for regional health

The heat is on for Australian councils to adapt before rising temperatures trigger a tsunami of health problems – Cholera. Typhoid. E-coli. Heat stress.

They’re all things we think we’ve solved, says Professor James Smith of the Flinders University College of Science and Engineering, but  he warns they may soon be back on every council’s crisis list, especially in remote and regional areas.

“We used to throw waste into the streets. We put lead pipes into our water supply. We burned everything off in our backyards. And we wondered why there were problems,” he says.

“You’d think we’d actually have learnt from that, but we haven’t. We’re still dumping stuff in the ocean. We’re still burning coal, and now we’re getting the health issues coming back at us.”

He believes that’s because infrastructure is suffering heat stress.

Prof jim smith flinders university
Professor James Smith, Flinders University

Sewerage systems. Waterways. Food safety.

Highly qualified environmental health officers (EHOs) are on almost every council’s staff  Smith says in a recent report, but they need to be recognised – and freed – to play an important role in climate change preparedness, resilience and recovery.

“What I’m concerned about is, we’re going on as though it’s business as usual,” Smith says. “But this is happening now. And councils had better start thinking about building their capacity to cope.”

Food for thought

He uses the role of the health inspector checking pie warmers in retail outlets.

“Everything’s got to be transported at 5C,” he says. “But you’re at the end of a very long chain, especially in regional areas. So how do you know that everything’s been looked after properly by the time it gets to you?”

“You have to run the refrigeration equipment more, so you have more breakdowns, and so on,” Professor Smith says. “There’s a chain reaction of problems, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

Another rural health article in Cosmos: What makes doctors stay?

Another is water.

As the usual supplies run low, ratepayers will seek other sources.

“That’s fine, but are they creating another risk to health in the process,” Smith asks.

Bathwater may end up in greenhouses. New wells may affect natural springs and existing industries. And contaminated rainwater tanks – under a hot sun – are supercharged microbe reactors.

“You can extend that problem to environmental flows,” he says. “What if people want to jump into the local creek or dam to cool off, and – all of a sudden – they’re swimming in blue-green algae?”

Even council swimming pools, he says, will soon face higher chlorine and cleaning bills.

“We’re going to have to reassess the risks surrounding all of these things,” Smith warns. “And EHOs need to help people stay in business and make sure whatever they have is safe.”

Mend and make-do

“It’s the local councils that need to adapt,” says Smith.

“The first thing councils will say is, ‘we need more resources’”.

“I’m saying there’s a limit to how much extra resources they’re going to get. And I’m pointing out to them, ‘why don’t you use the existing resources you have more efficiently’.”

“It’s not just about the environmental and infrastructure impacts,” he adds. “It’s also going to impact the day-to-day business of community members. And councils need to start thinking about them as a priority and how they’re going to cope.”

That includes everything from meals-on-wheels to the air-conditioned library’s open hours.

Built-in solution

“The answer’s sitting underneath their noses,” says Smith. “But I know the EHOs have got to go off and do so many inspections each week because of a state government requirement. It’s ridiculous. It really is because that’s not a good use of resources. These EHO’s can be helping people stay in business”.

The problem, he says, is they’re often regarded to be just another type of parking inspector.

“But they can do more than just issue compliance notices to cafes and pools. All EHOs are university qualified. They’ve all done the science. They’ve all been taught risk management from a public health point of view.

“Councillors need to remember they already employ people who can do these assessments, figure out the priorities, do the planning, and do it in a completely relevant way.”

EHOs already have an intimate understanding of their community.

“These guys have got to go back to those businesses again and again and again,” Smith says. “And it’s in their interest to make sure these stay in business because they’re providing a service – not to mention rates. So this is where the commercial realities, public health and safety and the community all come together.”

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