We have reached a point where there is global scientific consensus that climate change is real. While some will debate the degree of human contribution as a cause, there is no doubt that climate change is already having a major impact on our health.
Linda Marsa, author of the compelling book, “Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health,” skillfully connects the dots between the warming of our planet and the effects on our health. She warns, “Protecting ourselves from this oncoming medical meltdown is the most critical issue affecting our very survival in the coming century.” As Deirdre Imus and I have previously written, children are most vulnerable to environmental health ills and victims of what we call “environmental injustice.” In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Environmental Protection Agency have both published statements documenting the major impact global climate change has specifically on children’s health.
Why are children particularly at risk? Per the AAP, “Human health is affected by the condition of the physical environment. Because of their physical, physiologic, and cognitive immaturity, children are often most vulnerable to adverse health effects from environmental hazards. As the climate changes, environmental hazards will change and often increase, and children are likely to suffer disproportionately from these changes.”
How does climate change directly affect children’s health? The AAP and EPA papers, along with a landmark resource co-written by Drs. Perry E. Sheffield and Philip J. Landrigan, supply ample answers.
1. Declining air quality, leading to poor respiratory health. Air pollution has been linked to a wide range of conditions including asthma, autism, and cancer.
2. Natural disasters, leading to illness and injury as a direct result of weather events (e.g., hurricanes, fires) and secondarily due to loss of homes, food scarcity and stress.
3. Water and food-borne illnesses, primarily leading to dehydration associated with infectious gastritis and diarrhea. Direct heat stress as well contributes to dehydration.
4. Vector-borne diseases caused by population increases of rodents and insects. The geographical distribution of Lyme disease and malaria is already changing due to worldwide climate disruption.
5. Increased toxin exposure, as the distribution of chemicals like pesticides changes due to variations in temperature, humidity and water contamination.
6. Impact on pregnant women, leading to short- and long-term health problems for infants and children. All of the above cited concerns have added second- and third-hand impact on children based on exposure via pregnancy. Epigenetic theories support a “double-hit” hypothesis in which a child’s predisposition to illness is altered at the same direct exposures are increasing. The emerging concept of the exposome – essentially, an individual’s lifetime environmental exposures – must be widened to include the periconceptual and prenatal exposures as well.
What can we do to limit the impact of climate change on children’s health? Sheffield and Landrigan urge, “Prevention efforts directed against the health effects of climate change should acknowledge the inherent vulnerabilities of children and seek to reduce both their exposures and susceptibility.”
The EPA provides two specific suggestions:
1. Know Your Carbon Footprint: “Your carbon footprint is a measure of the greenhouse gases that you produce through activities that involve burning fossil fuels. Using less energy and reducing waste will reduce your carbon footprint.”
2. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: “We produce greenhouse gases as a result of using energy to drive, to light and heat our homes, and through other activities that support our quality of life like growing food, taking showers, and throwing away garbage. After estimating your personal or household carbon footprint, you can take actions to reduce emissions at home, work, school, and in your community.”
Additionally, you can help global efforts by raising awareness in your community about the impact of climate change on children’s health and the steps we can take to limit it.
(originally written for the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center)