Sarah Walpole: from medic to media – on the health effects of Tar Sands

Sarah WalpoleSeeing the call for medics to attend this year’s Camp for Climate Action, I was keen to lend support for a worthy cause. I’m usually a reluctant responder when it comes to calls for a doctor in the house, however, so I elected to attend under the guise of journalism and take on medic duties only as a last resort.

Shortly after my arrival, I stopped by the medics’ tent to introduce myself and offer my services if staff were in really short supply. I was dismayed to find that, of five trained first aiders on site, I, as an F2 doctor, was the most experienced member of the crew. With around three hundred activists camped on the doorstep of the global headquarters of a bank chosen for its social, environmental, and economic crisis-enhancing credentials, I could see a lot of potential for injuries.

So why would I want to support these banner-wielding, line-crossing environmental and social activists; and how many call outs can you expect from two days “on call” at climate camp?

A weekend in an autonomous space, claimed and constructed in two days isn’t every doctor’s ideal weekend break, but the cause that unites climate camp activists is a desire to create a fairer world, something that many health professionals would identify with. Indeed, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, the current chair of the British Medical Association and author of the World Health Organisation’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, often talks of social justice as a worthy goal.

This year’s Camp for Climate Action based itself of the doorstep of the Royal Bank of Scotland to highlight RBS’s role as one of the leading investors in Canadian tar sands projects. Tar sands are a health issue, not only because they represent another step in the extraction and burning of fossil fuels that contributes to climate change and supports inactive, fossil-fuel dependent lifestyles, but also because of the direct effects on local people.

On the morning of the “day of action” I spoke to two Canadian First Nations representatives, who wanted to let the UK taxpayers know that their money is “financing the destruction of our people.” A proposed 1200km pipeline will displace up to 50 First Nations, and the chemical effects of extracting and processing of bitumen from these reserves are as yet unquantified. Jasmine spoke poignantly of her father’s struggle with cancer and highlighted the increasing incidence of cancers in First Nations communities. Riannon discussed the contamination of the food supply and her people’s fears of harvesting a hydrocarbon cocktail.

As Riannon and Jasmine headed into Edinburgh city centre to raise awareness of the destruction that RBS money has funded, I headed back towards the centre of camp to await deployment with a camera or a first aid kit. It wasn’t until later in the day that what had been an innocent music stage for the duration of the camp morphosed into a siege tower and approached the RBS gate, surrounded by chanting activists and supported only by the ropes that they pulled. As the four-metre-high tower began it’s descent, my non-medically trained buddy was keen to remind me that he had a packet of antiseptic wipes ready to pass to me in the event of anyone being crushed under a falling wooden structure. Either the risk assessment carried out in advance or a dose of good fortune paid off, and the advance proceeded without injury. Likewise, I received no call outs for medics to any of the other varied actions that had gone on throughout the camp, from occupying the roof of the Forth Energy building to crossing the bridge to dodge police and swarm the lawns of RBS HQ.
So little for my role as a medic, but what of the media? Well, within a couple of days I learnt to use a video camera and editing software and made my first film featuring two First Nations representatives. Engaging with the ideas and divergent tactics of people who seem to value the health of people and the planet as highly as most doctors I know, taught me new skills and insight. Just as direct action is outside my comfort zone, those who choose to take up chants and siege towers are uncomfortable with the indirect effects of sitting back and accepting the consequences of their everyday actions. We may not support the tactics, but we should understand and take heed of the message.

Doctors are well-placed to advocate against health-destroying projects such as tar sands and for more sustainable systems. Hopefully climate activists of all ilks will continue to raise awareness without need for our medical services, but a role in communicating the need to protect health from environmental degradation is one that we should willingly and actively take up.

Sarah Walpole graduated from medicine at Leeds and is currently working in the North Yorkshire region as an academic FY2. She is an active member of the Climate and Health Council ( She has previously worked as an intern at WHO researching climate change and health equity and as a member of Medsin promoting the Healthy Planet campaign.