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Biology, Sustainability

Cancer and climate change

For the second year, I’m riding to raise funds and awareness for kids cancer research as part of the Great Cycle Challenge Canada. On August 11, a family is matching all donations made up to $1 million. I appreciate my ability to participate in this initiative but I, of course, wish it wasn’t necessary. (My link to donate is here in case you are interested and able.)

As I prep the sustainability courses I’m teaching this fall, I started wondering if there are any links between climate change and cancer. Hiatt and Beyeler (2020) reviewed the relevant research and found that there are two potential paths between climate change and cancer.

First, the causal pathways of cancer and climate change have common elements. Air pollution, UV exposure, exposure to industrial toxins, possible infectious causes, and disruptions to food and water supplies all have the potential to contribute to the development of cancer and many are associated with increasing climate change. This makes sense and it seems like the health impacts should be motivation to take action. Health is more concrete than many of the concerns of climate change and therefore, has the potential to provide a rallying point. Afterall, globally we have all had to respond to a health challenge with Covid-19. Of course, the responses to Covid-19 also reveal areas of concern which also apply to the connection between climate change and cancer. Many regions, including where I currently live in Alberta, Canada, have shown that they will continue to prioritize the economy, even in the face of preventable deaths.

This sadly segues into the second connection identified by Hiatt and Beyeler. Climate change has the potential to disrupt health care systems. One example of this is zoonotic diseases, like Covid-19, are those that jump from animals to humans. Habitat destruction, which can both contribute to and result from climate change, brings humans and animals closer, creating more opportunities for the diseases to jump. And pandemics like Covid-19 certainly have the power to disrupt our health care systems.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only effect of climate change that could disrupt health care systems. Extreme weather, food supply disruptions, social and economic inequities, all have the potential to be increased by climate change and they all have the potential to disrupt health care systems so that cancers go undiagnosed and untreated.

I think what I find more and more is that I don’t see individual problems any more. Everything is connected. It’s why systems thinking is very prominent in those sustainability courses I’m prepping. I’m not just riding for kids cancer this month. I’m riding because we have the ability to change how we interact with each other and the world around us and we need to change so that we can stop kids cancer, cancer, and climate change.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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