Photo by: Unsplash user Robert Collins
allergies | asthma | brain development | child health | equity | heat | low birth weight | mental health | preterm birth
Increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are leading to higher temperatures, more intense storms, and lengthy droughts—all of which can deeply affect children’s health.
Why it matters: Kids are not little adults. Their health is impacted more directly by climate change.
Children’s immune systems and organs are still developing, and they eat and drink more for their size. They also breathe at a faster rate, increasing their exposure to dangerous air pollutants that can damage their lungs.
Climate change makes heat waves hotter and longer—and potentially dangerous for kids to play outside. This is a critical issue because the number one health challenge facing our children today is obesity. When they do spend time outdoors, it can lead to heat stress and greater exposure to disease-carrying insects like ticks and mosquitoes.
The health connection:
Rising temperatures and decreased air quality affect kids by increasing asthma attacks and allergies, worsening pregnancy outcomes, creating food insecurity, increasing mental health problems, developmental delays, and changes in their genetic makeup.
- Warmer temperatures can allow insects that carry diseases to live in places where they couldn’t in the past.
- The blacklegged tick, which carries Lyme disease, has been expanding its northward range into Canada as annual temperatures warm.
- Mosquitoes that carry dengue, malaria, and zika are also expanding their range as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change worldwide.
- Diseases spread through contaminated water and food may also be on the rise with more heavier rainfall that comes with climate change.
- Floods are associated with outbreaks of diarrheal diseases—which are particularly dangerous for infants and young children—and mold that grows in flooded homes can trigger allergies.
- Air pollution accounts for 20% of newborn deaths worldwide, most related to complications of low birth weight and preterm birth.
- Thousands of children under the age of 5 die prematurely each year from lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution from burning fossil fuels.
- Carbon dioxide, which fuels climate change, also causes more pollen production in plants that trigger seasonal allergies. Warming has also led to earlier springs and longer growing seasons for many allergenic plants.
- Hot temperatures lead to more ground level ozone, a pollutant that causes asthma attacks in children. Ozone is produced when chemicals released from burning fossil fuels are exposed to sunlight and heat.
- Hot, dry weather can fuel forest fires, creating harmful air pollutants and damaging agriculture. These fires are likely to become more common in the 21st century due to the effects of climate change.
- Children can experience trauma from major storms and fires. They can destroy homes, uproot families, and disrupt education by damaging or destroying schools, which can lead to higher rates of anxiety and post-traumatic stress. That stress can lead to illnesses later in life like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and cognitive decline.
- Children may be more likely to feel anxious or depressed when they are confronted with the prospect of climate change— either in the form of extreme weather or just the knowledge of climate change itself.
Equity and health benefits of climate action:
- Actions that curtail the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, can substantially improve air quality and provide immediate and localized benefits to children’s health.
Learn about the impact of climate change on children’s health, and what parents can do to protect their kids. Read now.
The Bottom Line: Children deserve every opportunity to reach their full potential, but climate change puts their health at risk. This is especially so for disadvantaged children whose health may already be vulnerable. As weather patterns change and temperatures rise, so do the spread of vector-borne diseases, harmful air pollutants, and food insecurity that affect our health.
Businesses, government officials, and communities should recognize these connections and incorporate information on the health benefits of climate mitigation into their decision-making so we can better care for children, implement solutions to climate change, and grow our economy.
- Fact Sheet: Climate Change and the Health of Children
- Q&A: How Climate Change Hurts Health
- How climate change affects children’s health
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Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH
Aaron examines the human health effects of global environmental changes with the aim of promoting a deeper understanding of these subjects among students, educators, policy makers, and the public.
Anna helps develop and execute communications plans to promote awareness about the health impacts of climate change on children.