IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

Travel Health Journal

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Travel and climate change: How to stay healthy and be responsible

Did you know that as travellers, we are having significant impact on climate change?

Global tourism accounts for a staggering 8% of all carbon emissions. This is four times higher than originally thought and accounts for the energy needed to support the tourism industry and related goods and services.

The global tourism industry is projected to continue growing, but without a commitment to sustainable growth and reduced emissions, the effects of climate change will continue to take hold.

To travel as a tourist is a privilege and we owe it to the people and places we visit to be respectful and conscious of our impact. Together, we need to commit to more sustainable forms of travel.

Here are five things you can do to stay well and reduce your carbon footprint in a world affected by climate change:

1. Pay attention to extreme weather and pollution advisories

Globally, nearly 80% of all urban areas have air pollution levels exceeding the World Health Organization’s recommended safe threshold. Although it may not be possible to completely avoid air pollution, you can reduce your exposure to it.

What is PM2.5 and why should I worry about it?

Particulate matter (PM) is a hazardous mixture of floating solid and liquid particles such as dust, smoke, soot, pollen, and others. Particles can vary in size but are typically divided into two groups: Coarse particles between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter (PM2.5 – PM10) and fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5).

Generally, the smaller the particle, the more damage it can cause to your health. Larger particles are typically filtered in the throat and nose while smaller particles can pass through to your lungs. Ultrafine particles – particles smaller than 0.1 microns in diameter (PM0.1) – are small enough to reach the heart and travel through the bloodstream to other organs. Particulate matter decreases lung function, worsens asthma, increases the risk of lung cancer, and can cause premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

PM2.5 and PM10 are regulated by many countries and used as indicators of air quality. According to the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines, the annual mean concentration of PM2.5 should not exceed 10 µm/m3 and 20 µm/m3 for PM10.

Climate change is starting to irreversibly alter our Earth. The warming of the planet has coincided with more frequent extreme weather events such as prolonged high temperatures and heat waves, droughts, heavy rainfall, storms, and floods.

During summer and winter months, temperature extremes can contribute to smog formation. Smog is a type of air pollution made up of smoke, ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, and other particulate matter. It can have harmful health effects, especially for older travellers, children, and individuals with pre-existing pulmonary or heart conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease).

Extreme hot or cold temperatures can also exacerbate existing heart and lung conditions and lead to heat-related illnesses (heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke) or cold-related illnesses (cold hives, trench foot, frostbite).

Quick tips:

  • Research the climate and air quality of your destination. Check the air quality index, local weather forecasts, and public health notices.
  • Older travellers, children, and people with pre-existing lung or heart conditions should consult a doctor to see if additional medication or supplies are needed and to ensure its safe to travel. Depending on your condition, a stress test or lung capacity test may be required.
  • Where possible, travel during seasons with mild temperatures and lower pollution levels.
  • During periods of high pollution or temperature extremes, plan indoor activities and minimize strenuous outdoor activities, particularly during peak times (typically in the afternoon to early evening) where pollution levels and temperatures generally reach their highest point of the day.

2. Prevent the spread of disease

Climate change causes warmer and more humid conditions, which lengthens the transmission season and increases the geographic range of many diseases transmitted by insects, snails, and other animals. Mosquitoes, for example, require access to stagnant water and humid temperatures to breed. As the planet warms, the diseases they carry such as Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Dengue can spread to new areas, including to higher altitudes.  However, as weather patterns become more unpredictable, it becomes harder to forecast disease transmission.

Ticks are also highly influenced by climactic factors. Tick-borne infections such as Lyme Disease and Tick-Borne Encephalitis are predicted to affect more regions as temperatures rise and humidity and rainfall increase. In Canada, for example, milder winters have allowed more disease-carrying ticks to survive and spread further north.

Climate change also increases exposure to water-borne infections. For example, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, monsoons, and flooding can lead to contaminated drinking water and increased exposure to diseases like Cholera, Typhoid, and Leptospirosis.

When travellers fall ill during their trip, they become part of the transmission cycle that enables diseases to spread locally and internationally.

Quick tips:

3. Leave a minimal footprint

Wherever you go, strive to minimize your impact by reducing the waste you produce and the energy you use.

At home, it can be easy not to think about the waste we dispose of daily – we put things in bins and then they disappear. However, in many countries, recycling and waste disposal systems are limited or non-existent. Without these systems in place, the surrounding environment can become polluted and the risk of water-borne infections increases.

Quick tips:

  • Spend time learning about the sanitation conditions of your destination country.
  • Bring your own reusable food and beverage containers, bags, and utensils. This can help you avoid unnecessary use of plastics and packaging that cannot be recycled or are not biodegradable.
  • Avoid purchasing bottled water. Instead, boil your water and let it cool overnight before filling up your reusable container. You can also opt for larger containers of filtered water to avoid using many individual plastic bottles.
  • Reduce your use of gas, electricity, and water. For example: Always turn off lights that are not in use, take short showers instead of baths to reduce water use, and minimize your use of air conditioning and heating.

4. Use low impact methods of transportation

To get to your destination, you may not have a wealth of transportation options to choose from. However, there are ways you can reduce your carbon footprint during transit and at your destination.

Air travel accounts for 4-9% of climate change impact caused by human activity. This is a disproportionately large percentage for a relatively small industry. Compared to other forms of transportation such as driving and train travel, air travel also has a greater impact on the climate per passenger-mile.

Quick tips:

  • Research your travel company’s reputation before booking. For example, cruise ships are large contributors to air and water pollution but some cruise lines follow more environmentally-friendly practices than others.
  • Take direct flights instead of multiple shorter flights. Aircrafts expel the most pollutants during take-off and landing, so by taking multiple flights you generate more pollution per passenger-mile than a single long-haul flight.
  • Where possible, travel to and around your destination by train. Trains are one of the most energy efficient forms of travel.
  • At your destination, opt for public transportation, biking, and walking. Minimize your reliance on cars as much as possible.

5. Choose thoughtfully

How and where you spend your money matters. When planning your trip, do your research on the companies you choose to travel with. Ask about their responsible tourism policies and practices – How do they work with the local population? Do they support environmental conservation in the area? Where is their food and water sourced from? How do they manage waste disposal? It’s important to ensure that companies who claim to have responsible tourism policies are actually practising them and leading to positive outcomes.

By demanding more of companies, we can increase standards among the industry as a whole.

Quick tips:

  • Make sure your tourism company, accommodation, and other travel services can demonstrate their commitment to responsible and sustainable practices.
  • Make an effort to support the local economy during your stay.
  • Avoid purchasing products made from endangered species and other items that may be unethically sourced (diamonds, gems) or damaging to the environment (coral).
  • Take the time to learn about the cultures at your destination to ensure you are being sensitive to their norms and practices.
  • Find out how your destination ranks on sustainability according to the Environmental Performance Index. Note: The manner in which countries implement environmentally sustainable policies and practices varies widely. The EPI shows that wealthy countries perform well while resource-limited destinations do not. It’s important to be conscious of this disparity, to minimize your footprint, and support local, sustainable businesses and initiatives.

The tourism industry is both affected by and a major contributor to climate change. Pollution, extreme weather events, and loss of biodiversity can make destinations less attractive, negatively affecting tourism and reducing economic opportunities for local businesses. Simultaneously, tourism is significantly contributing to climate change.

Being a responsible traveller and supporting responsible travel should be a priority for all of us, especially the tourism industry. As travellers, we have a responsibility to choose consciously and demand better practices. We all need to do our part to ensure the health of the planet.

Image by Pixabay, Pexels

Article by Claire Westmacott