Climate Corner: Climate change impacts the health of children
Sep 3, 2022
Linda Eve Seth
“If you don’t act against climate change, then no matter how much money you leave for your children, it’ll not even cover their healthcare bills, due to living in an unhealthy planet.” — Abhijit Naskar, neuroscientist/poet/author
In many parts of the world, people are facing multiple climate-related impacts such as severe drought and flooding, air pollution and water scarcity, leaving their children vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. Horror stories of children trapped in hot cars make headlines, but air pollution and impacts from a changing climate are also impactful and more constant, year-round threats. Children are at higher risk for health changes due to these impacts for a range of reasons, including the way their bodies metabolize toxins, need more air on a per pound basis, and regulate temperature differently than adults.
Children are often more vulnerable than the general population to the health impacts of climate change because their bodies are developing physically, which can make them more vulnerable to climate-related hazards like heat and poor air quality. They also breathe at a faster rate, increasing their exposure to dangerous air pollutants.
Climate change has the potential to increase outdoor air pollutants, such as dust from droughts, wildfire smoke, and ground-level ozone, which are associated with increases in asthma and other respiratory conditions in children. Climate change can also increase pollen and prolong the allergy season.
Extreme heat events are expected to last longer and become more frequent and intense as the climate changes. Heat illnesses can occur when a person is exposed to high temperatures and their body cannot cool down. Increases in average and extreme temperatures are expected to lead to more heat illnesses and deaths among vulnerable groups, including children. Heat can affect children who spend time outdoors playing and exercising.
Young athletes are at particular risk of heat stroke and heat illnesses. Approximately 9,000 U.S. high school athletes are treated for heat illnesses each year. Children who live in homes without air conditioning are also at risk. Young children and infants are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and death, as their bodies are less able to adapt to heat.
Heavy rainfall has been linked to occurrences of gastrointestinal illnesses in U.S. children. Runoff from more frequent and intense rains, flooding, and coastal storms can introduce more pollutants and disease-carrying organisms into bodies of water where children swim and play or that communities use as drinking water. Other water-related diseases, as well as eye and ear infections can create serious health concerns for kids.
Because children spend a lot of time outdoors, they are vulnerable to increasingly powerful poison ivy, as well as insect and tick bites that can cause illnesses like West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Climate change is expanding the habitat ranges and length of time when insects and ticks are common. Warmer temperatures associated with climate change can also increase mosquito development and biting rates, while increased rainfall can create breeding sites for mosquitoes.
Children can experience mental health impacts from major storms, fires, and other extreme events that are expected to increase with a changing climate. They also can suffer from other changes, such as having to move due to climate threats.
There is a range of personal and family changes people can make. For example, parents that use electric cars for their family can decrease the likelihood of their child getting asthma by 30%. If a family can reduce eating meat just by one day a week, that can help protect the planet and improve the health of their children. Also, buying a filter for your home can reduce indoor air pollution. Using electric appliances instead of gas can improve the air that your family breathes by 50%.
All across the planet, people are facing multiple climate-related impacts leaving children especially vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. Almost every child on earth is exposed to at least one of these climate and environmental hazards. As the climate continues to change, the impacts will continue to grow also. This is a crisis that threatens children’s health, nutrition, education, development, survival, and future.
Until next time. Be kind to your Mother Earth.
Linda Seth, SLP, M.Ed. is a mother, grandmother, retired educator, concerned citizen and member of MOVCA.