By Dr Adekemi Adeniyan
The Groundswell Africa 2021 report released by the World Bank Group shows that climate change could have a devastating effect on Africa, with over 86 million of the people on the continent migrating within their own countries.
Water scarcity, drought-induced famines,and food insecurity are few of the negative impacts of climate change that are already being felt in Africa. The cost is high.
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The World Health Organisation estimates that about 250,000 people will die each year between 2030 and 2050 due to climate change.
You would not think your teeth had anything to do with climate change. But our oral hygiene habits can hurt our environment if we do not consider our actions when taking care of our teeth.
Excessive use of plastic has become a major cause of pollution today and most oral hygiene products come in plastics that become a source of waste including our toothbrush and floss.
A report by Simply Bamboo shows that an estimated amount of 240 million plastic toothbrushes are thrown away yearly in South Africa alone. Likewise, research shows that in the United States, an estimated one billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away yearly. This is an alarming number – and even more so when we consider that 6 in 10 people change their toothbrush at least three times a year as recommended i.e 60% of the world’s population. That’s a whopping 13 million toothbrushes that end up in the ocean and landfills yearly and become a pollutant. When you consider that it can take more than 400 years for just one toothbrush to decompose, every toothbrush you ever used will outlive you and affect generations after you.
These plastic toothbrushes are made from fossil fuels that release chemical toxins into the air continuously while decomposing, thereby altering the quality of the air we take in. When the quality of the air we breathe is poor, diseases like dry mouth – which are associated with high risk of tooth decay – become inevitable. This not only harms our planet but creates a cycle that ends up harming our mouths.
One fifth of global emissions come from transportation. These carbon emissions lead to global warming and rising temperatures which can fuel tornadoes, flooding, droughts and even an increase in malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Most people in rural communities in Africa still have to travel several hours by road to get to a dental facility. We are not only losing time; we are losing energy and lives.
The clinic itself adds to climate risk. A regular dental clinic is designed with a lot of lightning and power equipment fitted in it, thereby generating a high carbon footprint. In addition to this, most dental facilities make use of several materials such as hand gloves, plastic bags, trays and cups, traditional x-ray films, filling materials like amalgam and much more – that can become a waste. This ends up becoming a source of concern to our environment.
A report by WorldWildLife says that two-thirds of the world’s population may face water scarcity in 2025, yet over four gallons of water are wasted daily per person while brushing. Dental hygiene does require water. However, many people tend to use more than the required amount by leaving the water running while brushing. We are wasting water that we cannot afford to lose. This calls for urgent and collective action.
First, dentists should begin to think of eco-friendly design for the building and the equipment we use. An example is using scrubs and surgery wears that can be recycled, plastics that can be reused and making use of biodegradable materials for patients. This is because, when people come into our clinics and see that we care about our environment, it is easier to teach them to do the same.
Dentists should consider going digital and therefore paperless. We must incorporate sustainable waste management into our practice – and educate our patients on using sustainable products at home.
We can do this while giving the basic oral hygiene instructions. We need to get people excited about taking care of their oral health while creating a greener world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that Teledentistry is the future of dentistry. Less travel time means less fuel and energy consumed. Creating Teledental kiosks with wifi-based stations paneled by solar located at the heart of the communities can help tackle internet and light limitations. My organisation, the Dentalcare Foundation, piloted this initiative in a rural community in Ekiti State in Nigeria with immediate impact.
Solar panels help fight global warming by producing electricity that keeps us from burning greenhouse gas.This, in turn, means less greenhouse gas pollution. Regular checkups can be done through phone and video recordings, while only necessary procedures are carried out onsite. Fewer onsite consultations also mean reduced product consumption and therefore less waste.
As individuals, it is our ethical responsibility to protect our mouths and our planet. This means we must think about recycling with every dental hygiene product. We can achieve this by purchasing eco-friendly products like dental floss made from silk, biodegradable toothbrushes like bamboo toothbrushes rather than plastic toothbrushes.
While we are advocating for better oral health, we must not do it at the cost of our environment.
Our climate is changing, people are dying and more people may die if we do nothing. We owe it to ourselves to take care of our mouths but also to preserve our environments, ourselves and the next generation.
We need to create a greener future by thinking eco-friendly in our oral hygiene habits.
Dr Adekemi Adeniyan is a rural dentist and a 2021 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow her on twitter @PstDrKemi