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Diabetes and climate change: what are the links?

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People living with long-term health conditions, including diabetes, are more likely to be impacted by extreme weather, heat, and air pollution. Climate change isn’t just a threat to the planet’s health, it’s also a threat to human health.

The healthcare industry has a part to play in driving climate change, from emissions and waste products, to manufacturing and transport. Let’s dive into some new research about factors driving these tightly linked issues. 

Feeling the heat

New research published in the journal Diabetologia has shown that people living with type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes have a different response to heat compared to those without. This is because their blood vessels don’t expand as well, and nerve damage can lead to issues with sweating.

The risk of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks or stroke, can also increase in hot weather. Some medication people with diabetes take can also have an effect during heat. For example, drugs for high blood pressure can make people go to the toilet more, increasing the risk of dehydration and trouble with keeping the body cool. 

Other severe weather events can also add to the challenges for people living with diabetes. Some studies have shown that extreme cold can lead to dangerously high blood sugar levels, while heavy rain and flooding can cut people off from accessing vital medicine, care, and support.  

It's also been found that air pollution, one of the drivers of climate change, could influence the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Pollution carries fine particles, including metals and other toxins. It’s thought these can trigger insulin resistance and inflammation, which prevents the body from removing glucose in the blood and turning it into energy.

Given the number of people living in heavily polluted areas, efforts to reduce air pollution could be an important new strategy to help prevent cases of type 2. 

Altogether, climate change and extreme weather can lead to a variety of health problems for people living with or at risk of diabetes. But understanding more including through this new research can help us to develop better ways to intervene and lessen this impact. 

Zooming in on the healthcare industry

In the other direction, we know diabetes healthcare also has an environmental impact. Almost 5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the healthcare industry. It also generates an enormous amount of single-use plastic. 

Plastic - can't live with it, can't live without it

Plastic has revolutionised modern medicine, and for now daily life for people living with diabetes would be unimaginable without it. Single-use plastic is an essential part of insulin pens, continuous glucose sensors, test strips, and lancets, most of which are designed to be used once and thrown away.   

To reduce the environmental impact of diabetes management we need to see innovations in the design of more sustainable diabetes devices. In the meantime, several manufacturers are starting to use less plastic packaging and are introducing recycling programs for their products, so that less waste ends up in landfills.  

Novo Nordisk’s PenCycle programme launched in October 2022, allowing people to recycle empty pre-filled Novo Nordisk FlexPen and FlexTouch devices through community pharmacies, pre-paid Royal Mail post boxes, and a home-collection service. 

The used pens have been given a new lease of life, being repurposed into chairs, lamps and other glassware. The phrase, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, definitely holds true here! 

Moving towards a sustainable mindset

In 2020, NHS England became the world’s first healthcare system to commit to reduce its carbon emissions and set the goal of becoming net zero by 2040. We look forward to working with the NHS and healthcare companies as they take steps to lower their environmental impact and increase sustainability across diabetes care together. 

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