Wildfire smoke in New England underscores climate change-related health risks

After smoke from wildfires in the western U.S. cast a dangerous haze over New England on July 26 and 27, experts spoke out about the growing health risks spurred by climate change, which has led to more frequent and intense fires in recent years.

Physicians quoted in a July 28, 2021, Boston Globe article said they’d been seeing an uptick in patients in respiratory distress since the smoke appeared in the region. Wildfire smoke contains high levels of fine particulate matter, which has been linked with respiratory illness and premature death in numerous studies. Children, the elderly, and people with asthma or other respiratory conditions are particularly at risk.

Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and interim director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), spoke about the importance of including conversations about climate change and child health during primary care visits. He recently co-authored a paper that provides a roadmap for how pediatricians can talk with parents about the climate-related risks that a child or family may face, whether it’s asthma exacerbated by unhealthy air, food insecurity, risks of water-borne diseases from floods, housing insecurity, or energy insecurity.

“The fact that climate change is bad for children with asthma, or for pregnancy outcomes or any disease you can think of, is not debated so much,” said Bernstein. “But no one necessarily connects that to how we need to change our practice. So that’s the key step.”

Bernstein was also quoted in a July 26, 2021, National Geographic article on how parents can keep kids safe during days of extreme heat.

Read the Boston Globe article: In these hazy skies is a public health warning from a warming planet

Read the National Geographic article: How extreme heat might change your kid’s summers