How climate change affects children’s health

Aaron Bernstein

October 22, 2018 – October is Children’s Health Month, which is a good time to ask Aaron Bernstein, Co-Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, what the health effects of climate change are on children and how parents can keep their children healthy and safe.

Q: What does science tell us about the effects of climate change on children’s’ health?

A: We know that climate change is making heatwaves hotter and longer, and more heat means more kids aren’t able to go outside and play. This is a critical issue because the number one health challenge facing our children today is obesity. More heat also makes more ozone, an air pollutant that’s harmful to our lungs, and especially the lungs of kids with asthma. Ozone can also harm pregnant women and their growing fetuses as air pollution is associated with early birth and small babies, which can lead to lifelong health problems.

With climate change, we’re also seeing more heavy downpours and droughts. Heat plus droughts can cause wildfires, and wildfires produce severe air pollution that worsens asthma attacks and can promote respiratory infections, including pneumonia. Flooding and wildfires can also be traumatic experiences for children, and the stress associated with losing their home or school can lead to illnesses later in life such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.

There’s also the fact that floods are commonly associated with outbreaks of diarrheal diseases, which are particularly dangerous for infants and young children. Extreme weather can also impede access to medical care, as we’ve seen with Hurricanes Michael and Florence recently in the U.S. Hospitals can close or be forced to evacuate patients. A child that needs dialysis, nebulizers, or a ventilator may be in serious trouble if the power goes out.

And all this is just a sliver of the immediate health concerns for children that come with climate change.

Q: How do actions to address climate change also benefit kids today? 

A: We know that by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas—which are the major contributors to climate change—we can improve children’s health right now. For instance, by burning less fossil fuels, we can reduce air pollution, which, as mentioned above, is associated with various health problems including asthma. When the air quality is too dangerous, we stop kids from playing outside, which is another way climate change impacts obesity. Improving air quality can help prevent this.

Moreover, when we take steps to build our cities and infrastructure with climate change in mind, we’ll see immediate improvements in our children’s health. When we use more renewable energy and create more green space, our cities will be cooler and have less air pollution. When our communities are designed to promote public transportation and walking, we’ll have healthier environments for kids.

Q: What are some of the things parents can do to protect their kids?

A: The most important point I can make to parents is that through taking actions to decarbonize in our own lives and communities, we can improve our children’s health today and provide for a more livable climate tomorrow.

Here are five things parents can do:

  1. Choose walking, biking or public transit whenever possible, and consider carpooling. If you are buying a car, find one with better fuel economy. The more gas a car burns per mile, the more harmful air pollution it generates.
  2. Substitute a red meat meal once a week with something vegetarian. Beef is far more carbon intensive than almost any other food source. It also tends to be unhealthy. Research from the Harvard Chan School shows that every additional daily serving of red meat increased risk of death by 13% in adults.
  3. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. A timeless piece of advice. The more we buy new, the greater our carbon footprint. Much of what we consume in the U.S. is made overseas but the air pollution generated through production doesn’t stay there, it comes to us.
  4. Listen to your children. Our kids are learning more about our changing world than we did. When they tell us that they want change, we must listen and voice their desires. A livable climate can’t wait until they take on positions of authority.
  5. Get involved. Many towns and cities want to decarbonize—in fact they’re leading on this issue—and parents can play a role in shaping those efforts. When your neighborhood is getting redeveloped, ask that plans be made to make it easier to walk and bike safely, ask for green space and access to public transit. These actions will benefit everyone’s health and especially the health of our children.