Photo by: Andrea Tummons on Unsplash
allergies | asthma | brain development | child health | equity | heat | low birth weight | mental health | preterm birth
Climate change matters to everyone’s health, but especially to children who have more obstacles and fewer resources—like children with chronic medical problems, who face discrimination, or who live in poverty.
Climate solutions can lessen health risks for vulnerable children today and help protect their future.
Why does climate change impact some children more than others?
Air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel are responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide, 1 in 10 deaths in the United States. Thousands of children under the age of 5 die prematurely each year from lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Children in low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to breathe polluted air, which can:
- Cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks
- Increase the chances a child will get sick with respiratory and ear infections
- Harm brain development
- Impact mental health
Pollution tends to be worse in cities because of traffic, and cities are hotter than the surrounding areas. Children from urban, low-income neighborhoods often live and attend schools that are close to highways, industrial sites, and power plants, where air pollution is worse.
- For example, due to a history of systemic oppression and racist planning policies like redlining, African Americans are 75% more likely to live near areas with high pollution like oil and gas facilities.
- African American and Latino children and children living in low-income, urban areas are more likely to visit emergency departments and be hospitalized for asthma than other children.
Access to clean water
Children who live in areas that have been hit by natural disasters may be exposed to unsafe or contaminated water.
- Floods can cause sewage to back up in pipes and contaminate communities’ drinking water, especially in older buildings and towns with older sewer systems. Families who live through major storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey can develop infections from polluted water or be exposed to mold and toxic substances, such as lead and industrial chemicals, in polluted water.
- Wildfires, such as the California Camp Fire, may create toxic waste that can seep into the drinking water.
Climate change also leads to rising sea levels, droughts, and algal blooms, all of which can dry up or contaminate drinking water. This can cause severe illness, and undernourished children are especially at risk.
Low-income communities may have fewer resources to prepare for, cope with, and recover from disasters.
- For instance, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the poorest residents, who lived in the lowest-lying areas, were hit the hardest. Emergency evacuation plans asked residents to drive away from the storm, but people who didn’t own a car or have a safe place to go were not able to escape the storm. Families that didn’t have the resources to buy flood insurance were not able to receive FEMA assistance after their homes were flooded.
Children may also be particularly at risk for mental health problems after disasters. If children don’t have supportive relationships—which can come from a caring adult or community of caregivers—natural disasters can have lingering effects on their health.
Low-income urban neighborhoods tend to have fewer trees and less green space, which makes these areas even hotter. Heat can be more dangerous for children and families who don’t have access to safe shelters, air conditioning, and clean water to stay hydrated. Extreme heat can also make it more difficult for children to do well in school.
- African Americans are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat. One analysis found that by 2050, U.S. counties with large African American populations will experience about 20 more extreme heat days per year than counties with smaller African American populations.
Children living with chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, and certain mental health problems may also be at higher risk for heat-related illnesses.
How can climate actions improve child health equity?
Actions to address carbon pollution and reduce reliance on fossil fuels will benefit all children’s health, but particularly those who bear an unfair burden from carbon and traditional air pollutants due to:
- Poor housing quality
- Lack of access to green space
- Food insecurity
- Lack of clean water
- Chronic medical conditions
Policies and programs that focus on frontline communities can improve child health equity. For example:
- Children from communities and schools near major roads—which are often lower-income communities and communities of color—are more exposed to fumes from cars and trucks. Removing fossil fuels from transportation—by investing in electric vehicle infrastructure and converting diesel buses to electric, for example—can greatly reduce the air pollution that is driving health disparities in asthma in the United States.
- Adding green space to low-income communities can reduce the heat island effect and provide direct health benefits including reduced temperature and air pollution, fewer asthma attacks and heat-related illnesses, and can possibly improve children’s mental health. Adding cooling centers can also protect these communities during heatwaves.
You can learn more about child health equity in a changing climate in Making Equity Real in Climate Adaptation and Community Resilience Policies and Programs: A Guidebook from the Greenlining Institute.
What can I do to take action against climate change?
Climate change can feel overwhelming, but the good news is that we have solutions for climate change that can improve the health of your child and children all over the world. The same actions we take to curb climate change also have immediate health benefits.
Here are a few steps you can take:
- Plant trees and other vegetation where you live, and encourage your community to do the same. Trees provide shade to help you stay cool on hot days. Adding trees and other vegetation to your neighborhood can also help improve the air quality where you live, especially in urban areas, and can improve mental health. Some types of plants can cause more pollen in the air, so check with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s guide to plant selection to learn which plants are safer for people with allergies.
- Choose walking, biking or public transit whenever possible, and consider carpooling. If you are buying a car, choose an electric car or find one with better fuel economy. The more gas a car burns per mile, the more harmful air pollution it generates. Getting exercise may also help improve a child’s mental health.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle. A timeless piece of advice. The more we buy new, the greater our carbon footprint.
- Invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Ask your local leaders to invest in renewable energy in buildings, and to support building codes that promote energy-saving policies. Conserving energy saves money and reduces our carbon footprint.
- Start a conversation. Talk to your family and friends about climate change to make sure they know it’s a health issue, especially for our children, and that we need to work with everyone to take action to fight climate change. Work with your place of worship and in your children’s school to see what you can do to spread the word and keep our kids healthy, and get involved in climate change planning at the state and local level.
- Get involved. Many towns and cities are leading the way to a carbon free world, and parents can play a role in shaping these efforts. Ask local leaders how your neighborhood can become safer and healthier by making it greener, more walkable and bike-friendly. Ask decisionmakers to add green space to your community, increase access to public transit and invest in electric vehicle infrastructure. These actions will benefit everyone’s health and especially the health of our children.
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Harvard Chan C-CHANGE does not recommend or endorse any products.
The Turning Point
Our Yerby Fellow Renee Salas discusses how climate change is impacting the everyday health of African American, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans, and why she is hopeful that America is at a turning point.
The fight for environmental justice
Dr. Bernstein and Dr. Salas speak about their work to right the wrongs of decades of discriminatory policy.
Action Planet: Meeting the Climate Challenge
Our Director Dr. Aaron Bernstein joins Vice President Kamala Harris, Gina McCarthy, and others for a 1-hour Earth Day special, hosted by NowThis' Zinhle Essamuah.
What Earth Day means to our children
A healthier planet nurtures healthier young patients, says our Director Dr. Aaron Bernstein in his Earth Day Coverage column.
With COVID spread, ‘racism — not race — is the risk factor’
Harvard experts, including our Director Dr. Aaron Bernstein, take a hard look at health inequities.
Companies are promising to remove carbon — what about frontline communities?
In an op-ed, our researcher Jonathan Buonocore argues why companies' climate pledges must include emissions reduction strategies to protect frontline communities.
Biden aims to create climate, equity office at HHS
Our Health Equity Fellow Dr. Gaurab Basu says the Biden administration learned lessons about equity from COVID-19 and plans to apply them "to the greatest public health threat we face — climate change."
Q&A: Gaurab Basu on climate change, racial justice, and COVID-19
Our Health Equity Fellow Dr. Gaurab Basu discusses how a legacy of racist policies in the U.S. have left communities of color ill-prepared for climate change and why applying a racial justice framework to climate action is instrumental to overcoming these challenges and closing the equity gap.
COVID-19 and Climate Change: The Need for Equitable Solutions
Our Student Ambassador Jessica Schiff writes why we must enact equitable solutions to address root causes of disease and build equity.
Episode 226: Renee Salas On Making Climate Change Personal
Our Climate MD leader Dr. Renee Salas shares her expertise around climate change, human health, and how we must make this issue personal.
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.