Disturbing change that could happen on Australian death certificates

Doctors could soon acknowledge the growing role climate change is playing in killing Australians.

Death certificates are generally structured to list a primary cause like heart attack or stroke, but also have space for antecedent factors, and this is where climate-related contributors like heat and smoke could be added.

Doctors for the Environment Australia honorary secretary Dr Richard Yin told Yahoo News it was rare for anyone to die directly as a result of heat exhaustion or heat stress, but they would amplify pre-existing illnesses like heart, lung or kidney disease.

A death certificate as an inset on a photo of a suburban street.
Climate change will likely one day be listed on death certificates in Australia. Source: Getty Images/Supplied

“What the heat does is it overwhelms the system and they die from something else, not heat itself, but the heat is a contributing cause,” he said.

“I think it makes sense to start reporting more about these issues, otherwise, they… don’t appear in any statistics other than studies, when it's actually happening all the time.”

Canadian GP clarifies 'climate change' diagnosis

Dr Yin's comments follow multiple reports Canadian GP Dr Kyle Merritt had been the first in the world to diagnose a patient with climate change.

Clarifying the issue with Yahoo News via email, Dr Merritt said this was not the case as climate change was "of course not a medical condition".

"Rather I have been trying to identify the cases where I think it was a contributing factor to the ultimate disease process (heat exhaustion, COPD exacerbation, anxiety disorder, etc)," he wrote.

"I am suggesting that we need to recognise its direct impacts on health the same way we do for tobacco."

Climate change could be listed on death certificates

The question of whether climate change could be specifically listed on death certificates would currently be a “harder claim”, Dr Yin believes.

While it’s possible to say that fires and floods will occur more frequently, from a purely evidence-based approach it's harder to categorically state that an extreme weather event was caused by climate change.

As science improves, Dr Yin said it would become easier to determine an event would have been “less likely to happen without climate change”, but he didn't think we’re there yet.

Eventually, he foresees a third section could be included on death certificates to register whether global heating has contributed to a death, but for now more thorough listings of antecedent factors is something doctors could be doing better.

Tourists at the Three Sisters lookout in NSW as fires burn nearby.
Smoke from the Black Summer bushfires likely contributed to more than 400 deaths. Source: Getty Images

Heat-related deaths 'ongoing issue'

The link between smoke and mortality was determined through a study this year, which found that air quality contributed to 429 deaths during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, an event amplified by climate change.

Improved reporting on death certificates of contributing factors could prove an important weapon in mitigating the effects of extreme weather.

Heat-related deaths in particular are an “ongoing issue” and “not as episodic” as other weather-related events, Dr Yin argues.

With parts of NSW frequently soaring to temperatures close to 50 degrees, he believes better reporting on death certificates could lead to better planning outcomes.

“The more we report on it, the more it requires health authorities and local authorities to actually start taking action, because there’s things we can do,” he said.

“We know that with urban heat sinks, we can mitigate some of that through green space, through green canopies, through better building, through better insulation, and local heat and action plans.

“So it helps drive change when we can acknowledge the problem.”

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