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Kids are uniquely vulnerable to changing climate, says growing body of research

Kids are uniquely vulnerable to changing climate, says growing body of research

Picture of Fran Smith
(Photo: Oscar Del Pozo/ AFP)
(Photo: Oscar Del Pozo/ AFP)

As the most destructive wildfire in California history raged last year, Bay Area media ran photos of students at UC Berkeley, 160 miles away from the flames, wearing breathing masks to filter out toxic particles and gases from smoke fouling the region’s air.

They were not the most horrific or heartbreaking picture of the effects of the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings. But those images haunted me, as a health writer and as a mom. What will happen to our kids’ health, I wondered, as climate change dramatically changes the Earth’s ecosystem and makes fires, floods, hurricanes, droughts and heat waves more frequent and fierce?

A growing body of research offers a distressing answer: Climate change is a public health emergency. While nobody is immune from harm, children are uniquely vulnerable. And they’re already suffering the consequences, says a new, exhaustive analysis, published in The Lancet. The problems include heatstroke, asthma attacks, lung damage from pollutants, and climate-influenced infections such as Lyme disease and diarrheal illnesses.

“Without significant intervention, this new era will come to define the health of an entire generation,” says a policy brief accompanying the report, a collaboration of 120 researchers from the U.S. and around the world.

While older people are also highly vulnerable to climate-related ailments, children will see the health risks accumulate over their lifetimes. Racial health disparities, already glaring, are projected to intensify nationally and globally. Poor children and children of color are already at higher risk of asthma and other conditions influenced by environmental pollution, and they often have limited access to medical care. And as the nation has witnessed through media coverage of so many disasters, starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, low-income communities of color are often hit hardest because they typically live in areas that lack good infrastructure to withstand the catastrophes and lack resources for swift recovery.

Researchers are just beginning to study the toll of such disasters on children’s mental health.

The Lancet report suggests the world can avert worst-case scenarios by meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement and limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. But the world is on track to do no such thing, and the Trump administration is pulling the U.S. — the world’s second largest of carbon dioxide — out of the agreement. If emissions and climate change continue at their current rate, children born today will face a world 4 degrees warmer, on average, by the time they turn 71.

The earliest research on the links between disease and a changing climate, published in the mid-1990s in the prestigious journal JAMA, was met with skepticism and even derision. In the decade that followed, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued increasingly urgent warnings while the medical establishment largely remained silent on the threats. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement but noted “little has been written specifically on anticipated effects of climate change on children’s health.”

That has changed. A stream of studies over the past five years explore the direct and indirect health effects of climate change and the special risks for children because of their anatomical, cognitive, immunological and psychological development. Simply put, their growing bodies are more vulnerable.

For example, infants and young children have a low ratio of body surface to body mass, which means they retain heat. That leaves them highly susceptible to dehydration, heat stress, electrolyte imbalance, respiratory illness and fever during long, severe heat waves. One study projected that infant heat-related deaths will increase by 6% to 8%. Older youth are vulnerable too. Among American high school and college football players, the number of deaths from heat stroke nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, from 15 to 29.

Higher temperatures also expand the range of illnesses borne by mosquitos and other vectors. Zika is the most terrifying example. But the threats are many: After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, doctors saw increases in gastroenteritis and skin infections, according to a 2018 report by Columbia University researchers. Around the same time, Hurricane Harvey dumped rainfall on Texas, resulting in floodwaters mixed with sewage and toxic chemicals, the researchers wrote. “The long-term implications for children’s health are unknown.”

Influential medical and health organizations are now raising their voices in calls for climate action. The American Academy of Pediatrics revised and dramatically strengthened its policy in 2015, asserting, “Failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children.”

Earlier this year. the American Medical Association called for physicians, residents and medical students to get education and training on the health effects of climate change. Dozens of prominent health and medical associations and public health schools recently signed a statement urging government and business leaders to “recognize climate change as a health emergency” and take action “to avoid thousands of deaths in the U.S. and millions of deaths each year globally.”

Whether such calls will move the needle on climate policy is hard to say. But young people aren’t waiting for the medical establishment to save them, and that gives me hope. Many kids understand their physical, mental, and emotional well-being is at stake. They’re walking out of school, marching in the street, and shouting, “Whose future? Our future!” They’re demanding that leaders do more, faster, while there’s still time to ease the climate crisis and protect health.

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