How climate change is already hurting your health in Kenya


A rental RV passes a sign warning of extreme heat danger. Warmer air is able to carry a heavier load of pollution than cooler air. FILE PHOTO | DAVID MCNEW | AFP

It’s easy to underestimate the health impacts of climate change —even as we live through years of catastrophic livestock losses and spreading desertification. 

But you can be sure that temperature rises are already hurting your own health: adding weight to the laments as international climate conferences leave health off the agenda.

So where is the climate already hurting you? Well, first off, temperatures in many areas across the country have risen by more than 2.0 degrees Celsius. In Nairobi and other urban areas, they are also being pushed up by what the scientists call heat islands, which are formed by surfaces such as tin roofs that act like enormous radiation heaters: heated up by the sun, reflecting heat back out into the air, and warming it by several extra degrees.

That warmer air is able to carry a heavier load of pollution than cooler air: so open burning in colder times puts less into your own lungs than open burning does today. Hence, burning — and other air pollution — plus extra air warmth are driving extra respiratory diseases, pneumonia, breathing difficulties, and chest infections.

Moreover, unless you are moving around every day in an astronaut’s breathing apparatus, you are breathing the same air as the rest of us and that air moves freely. It doesn’t stop at the perimeter of State House.

Then there are insects. The growth of an insect takes an exact amount of energy, as heat: increase the heat, you accelerate the growth. Thus, we have seen a warmer Europe waking up to a surge in bed bugs - largely unsolvable as the EU has banned most of the pesticides to get rid of them. Yet, even as we adapt to EU citizens arriving with bites and bed bugs, we have our own insect concerns.

The rise in dengue fever? Spread by mosquitoes thriving in our extra heat and additional heat spikes, and carrying more malaria, Zika and other viruses too, back up, as well, into areas that used to be too cool because they were too high.

As well as avoiding air and mosquitoes, to escape the climate health tab you need to end contact with other humans and all surfaces or items they touch too. Because, yes, that heat increases the breeding of bacteria and viruses as well. And, then, find a way to stay out of the heat, because temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius can cause vomiting, heatstroke, and heart attacks.

So, for sure, we cannot talk about the health impact of climate change: but maybe if we were willing to look at what’s happening, we might find dozens of ways to slow or stop it that we will never find by ignoring it.

The writer is a development communication specialist.