​Opportunities for Pediatric Leadership: Wildfire Smoke a Growing Threat to Vulnerable Children

By Amanda Millstein, MD, FAAP

Halloween. Daylights Savings. Wildfire smoke. Evacuations. Power outages. All of these things are associated with transitions from summer to fall in Northern California. This year alone more than 3.5 million acres have burned, and we’re still in the midst of the carnage. Four weeks ago we had an entire day of darkness, the layer of smoke so thick that the sun’s rays could not penetrate. My daughter, age 2, cried at preschool drop-off, screaming “it’s nighttime! It’s nighttime!”

I am a primary care pediatrician and a mother in Richmond, California. Every day, I see the ways in which climate change impacts the health of my patients and their families. And, I see the hope and opportunity in my colleagues stepping up to the plate to go to bat for climate and health solutions.

My patient Stacy is 11 years old. She has cerebral palsy, a condition that makes her body weak and unable to move without the aid of a wheelchair. She also has a seizure disorder. Stacy relies on a machine to help her clear her lungs twice a day. Like they are now, last October wildfires raged throughout Northern California. Millions of Californian families also lost power as utilities attempted to prevent unusually high winds and faulty electrical wires from sparking new flames. When she learned that her family would lose power and running water for up to a week, Stacy’s Mom packed the entire family and drove to find a hotel room. She was terrified about not being able to use Stacy’s breathing machine. A week later, as she told me about this experience, the frantic packing and the chaos that ensued, Stacy’s mom’s eyes were still wide, dazed. Stacy had several seizures on the day they evacuated, after having gone years without a seizure. At the end, Stacy’s mom acknowledged her family’s luck — they had a car, they could afford the hotel, they could get out. Their house didn’t burn. This time.

In Northern California, the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires is directly attributable to climate change. If we continue with burning fossil fuels per usual, the coming decades will bring to California an increase in the average annual maximum daily temperature by up to 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit, a decrease in water supply from snowpack by up to two-thirds, an increase of 77% of total area burned by wildfire, and complete erosion of up to two-thirds of all beaches in Southern part of our state. All of these changes have dire health consequences, especially for our kids. Heat stroke and heat-related illness, an increase in vector-borne and infectious diseases, and worsening severity and frequency of seasonal allergies are just a few.

What can we do?

For one: talk about it. Talking to our kids about the climate crisis both eases their own anxiety and also compels us all to action. Get your kids out in nature. Talk about the importance of taking care of the Earth. Take actions together, however small.

For two: get politically involved. Locally, nationally, internationally. Elect people into political office who understand the climate crisis and prioritize it.

For three: understand the linkages between burning fossil fuels, climate change and every other aspect of our modern lives. Public transit, housing density, worker’s wages — these are all intricately tied to climate change.

The climate crisis is a health crisis. It is particularly a health crisis for our kids.  Today, in both developed and developing countries, 88% of the health impacts of climate change are in children younger than 5 years of age. Pediatricians, health providers, parents, teachers, anyone who loves a child or cares about a child’s future: now is the moment. The window of opportunity to change course and get on a positive path to equitable climate solutions is small, and we are in it now. Stacy and her mom are watching. My daughter is watching. Let’s go.

 

Amanda Millstein, MD, FAAP, is a primary care pediatrician at UBCP Hilltop Pediatrics in Richmond, CA. She is a co-founder of Climate Health Now and a co-chair of AAP California Chapter One’s Committee on Climate Change and Health.

This blog is part of a series from pediatricians we will feature throughout October, Children’s Health Month. It was updated from an original post on the AAP Voices blog.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.

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