Climate change affects children even before birth

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Climate change is increasingly affecting the health of children. Ketzalli Garcia Santibañez/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • A review of studies brings together previous research into a comprehensive view of the effects of climate change on children.
  • One of the findings of the study is that children in low-to-moderate income countries are likely to be the most affected by climate change.
  • Understanding the new risks that climate change poses to children will be essential to help mitigate its effects.

The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly evident. They are widespread, including increased levels of air pollution, extreme and unpredictable weather, and heat.

Climate change affects everyone, but studies have shown that infants and children are the most vulnerable.

A new study brings together research on the health burdens imposed by climate change on children today and on future generations. The authors of the study, Professor Frederica Perera and Dr. Kari Nadeauwrite:

“Protecting children’s health requires healthcare professionals to understand the multiple harms caused to children by climate change and air pollution and use the strategies available to reduce these harms.”

The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The planet is getting warmer and warmer due to the continued burning of fossil fuels and the use of coal and natural gas. Together they are responsible for the two main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. During the last years, Billions tons of carbon dioxide and 120 million metric tons of methane were emitted each year.

According to the study, exposure to heat before birth is associated with a higher risk of premature births, as well as low birth weight, and is linked to hyperthermia and infant death.

In children, heat can promote kidney disease and heat stress. For older youth, the study highlights that “heat-related illness is a major and growing cause of death and illness among student-athletes.”

There is also research linking extreme heat to Mental Health problems, as well as developmental issues and learning difficulties.

Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy, professor and co-director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, was not involved in the study. She said Medical News Today:

“Children are spending more time outdoors and being exposed to heat, which can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and death. This is especially concerning during the summer months, when children may be in camps supervised by high school counselors or young adults.

Intensified weather events such as floods and major hurricanes are causing more child injuries, drownings and traumatic stress.

“For children in poor and marginalized communities, all climate change challenges will be compounded,said Dr. McDermott-Levy.

The study highlights that more than 50 million children worldwide were forced from their homes due to extreme weather events, including more than 90,000 displacements, including many children, in the United States in 2020.

According to the study, “7.4 million children in the United States were exposed to lung-damaging wildfire smoke annually between 2008 and 2012.”

Furthermore, “With droughts and floods, we can expect [a] reduced food and animal production and water quality issues,” said Dr McDermott-Levy.

“Children’s nutrient and hydration intake could be compromised, which could affect body growth and brain development. Children drink more relative to their body weight, so contaminated water is a greater risk for young children.“
— Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy

For food production, Dr. McDermott-Levy noted, “Studies have shown that in the presence of high CO2, some grains and legumes contain less protein and more carbohydrates, which may interfere with the nutritional requirements of the development of the child”.

“We can expect,” said Dr. McDermott-Levy, “more cases and episodes of asthma exacerbations due to poor air quality. Children’s lungs continue to develop into the second decade of life. They breathe faster than adults (absorbing more polluted air) and spend more time outdoors.

“Globally, approximately 2 million preterm births in 2019 were attributed to PM 2.5 exposure.”
— Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy

Other health problems associated with increased air pollution levels include infant deaths, adverse birth outcomes, asthma and respiratory infections.

The researchers also cite structural and functional changes in the brains of children exposed to high levels of air pollution before birth or in early childhood, as well as “reduced cognition, attention problems, impaired attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autistic traits.

Climate change is also increasing the spread of infectious diseases, with animals moving into new territories due to changing seasons and loss of habitat. This is especially a concern in tropical regions.

“The future will be difficult for anyone connected to climate change and health, but this is especially true for children whose bodies are still developing,” said Dr McDermott-Levy.

Dr. Patrick L. Kinneya professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health at Boston University in Massachusetts, who also was not involved in the study, said people and cities will need to adapt their lives and infrastructure to s adapt to a world with a changing climate.

“The world of our children and grandchildren will be different from the one we grew up in: hotter and stronger storms and floods, etc. They will have to adapt their lives and their infrastructures to this new reality. Impacts will vary depending on economic circumstances, both within and between countries.
— Dr. Patrick L. Kinney

Neither Dr McDermott-Levy nor Professor Kinney think the challenges ahead mean expectant parents should decide not to have children.

Dr McDermott-Levy said that while she understands many people’s concerns when planning children, she said she ‘didn’t believe all was lost’.

“I would encourage them to get involved in local climate action and talk to their policy makers about climate change and mitigation policies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and effective climate adaptation plans” , she said.

Professor Kinney added:

“We need a new generation of thoughtful, driven young people to help bring our world back into a stable relationship with nature.”

Both experts stressed the need for medical schools to educate future physicians about the realities of climate change and be flexible in mitigating its changing effects on patients.

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