There is no health without a healthy planet

Learn more about how climate change affects our health and what we as a company are doing to help tackle it.

Natalie Minnert and Markus Gloss
Published on April 7, 2022

Floods, forest fires, and earthquakes – natural disasters caused by human-made climate change. Forest burning, crops drying up, and huge swaths of land being flooded. Media coverage of such events is steadily increasing; but the fact that climate change not only affects our environment but can also have a direct impact on human health is underrepresented in the media and public debate.[1,2] And even in the scientific community, only about four percent of publications in 2017 addressed the relationship between climate change and human health.[3]

Nevertheless, links between climate change and human health have been confirmed by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[1] According to Professor Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann from the University of Augsburg heat waves in particular are having a major impact on human health.[4] Furthermore, air pollution and water contamination can also be considered as causal factors.[5]

Claudia Traidl Hoffmann

Climate change directly and indirectly favors certain disease patterns. Looking at the emission of exhaust gases from road traffic, for instance, two health-damaging scenarios emerge: On the one hand, inhalation of individual components of exhaust gases, such as particulate matter, has been identified as the cause of short- and long-term damage to the cardiovascular system.[6,7] This shows that environmental pollution has a direct impact on health.

On the other hand, the emission of exhaust gases creates a causal chain: The ozone layer decreases, whereupon UV radiation on the earth increases, resulting ultimately in a rise in temperature, which can indirectly promote already existing health hazards.[8] Other factors, such as drought or lack of wind, can further increase harmful effects on health as well as increased heat stress due to rising average temperatures and the increased number of hot spells.

Above all, older people, small children, and people with previous illnesses are considered to be particularly at risk here due to intrinsic factors. They can suffer from cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, or rheumatic complaints due to the physical stress caused by the heat.[9] In addition to increasing heat stress, maximized UV radiation is also a known problem. Both artificial and natural UV radiation have been classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).[10]

The increase in temperature also favors the quantity and duration of pollen flight. The growth and subsequent spread of allergenic plants is steered by climatic factors with warmer conditions increasingly problematic for those suffering from allergies.[11] Furthermore, climate change could lead to an increase in native vectors and reservoirs. Also, neozoa and neophytes, i.e., non-native animal species and plants, could settle in Central European latitudes due to climatic changes.[12] This favors the proliferation of new disease vectors, such as the Asian tiger mosquito.[13]

There are various climate-changing influences that promote the frequency of different extreme weather events. Severe thunderstorms, flooding, and increased wind speeds result not only in high economic losses, but also human health consequences such as cuts, fractures, and death from drowning or other forms of physical violence. For example, in July 2021, the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, regions in Germany, suffered the costliest flood damage in history, with more than 180 deaths. Trauma and psychological consequences for survivors have not yet been considered here.[14]

Climate change is already posing serious challenges for the healthcare sector and will bring many new challenges in the future. There could be increased sickness due to the intensification of known disease patterns, but also additional health threats due to foreign pathogens. Ultimately, this could lead to medical facilities becoming overburdened. The need for medical treatment facilities, as well as the demand for efficient technological innovations will increase.

It should also be noted that the healthcare sector has a major influence on climate change developments. If the healthcare sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest greenhouse gas producer in the world. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) shares a vision of healthcare that does no harm, and instead promotes the health of people and the environment–summarized in the statement: “To that end, we are working to implement ecologically sound and healthy alternatives to health care practices that pollute the environment and contribute to disease.“[15]

As one of the leading companies in the healthcare industry, we at Siemens Healthineers understand that we can help to drive significant change and that it is our responsibility to contribute to a regenerative and healthy environment.

That's why we:

  • support the global efforts pledged by 192 nations plus the European Union [16] in the COP 21 Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,
  • aim to be carbon neutral in our operations by 2030,
  • joined the Science-based Target Initiative (SBTi) in October 2021, which approved our emissions reduction targets as consistent with levels required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,
  • are working toward a circular economy,
  • are increasing the energy efficiency of our products,
  • are mitigating the environmental impact at our sites.
Watch Maiya Shibasaki, PhD, Head of our Sustainability Office, talk in detail about our efforts to tackle climate change.

By Natalie Minnert and Markus Gloss
Natalie Minnert and Markus Gloss are editors at Siemens Healthineers.