As a pediatrician, I take care of kids. I help keep them healthy by diagnosing illness, protecting them from injury and counseling their parents on the challenges of parenting. But while I can vaccinate against meningitis or treat asthma, there are some risks to my patients I cannot control.
Changes in our climate are elevating a range of health threats to children. From worsening seasonal allergies, to changing infectious disease patterns, to an increasein severe weather events, pediatricians and other physicians are witnessing the health effects of climate change in our offices. That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s work to reduce carbon pollution and urges states to set a path to reduce carbon pollution via the Clean Power Plan.
Over the past year, I have seen the influence of an unstable climate on children in my Alexandria office. Wesley is a 6 year-old boy I saw last spring. He came into our office three times in April, tired, itching, with swollen red eyes, a congested nose and a cough. He was already on three medications when a cold tipped him over the edge and he developed wheezing and shortness of breath that required admission to the hospital. With rising temperatures and carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, seasonal allergies are starting earlier, lasting longer, and are more severe. According to a 2015 study, the U.S. average pollen count increased by 40% between 2000-2010 relative to the 1990s. Ragweed and timothy grass grown in elevated CO2 produces much more pollen than plants grown at lower CO2 concentrations. This means children’s allergies are increasingly placing them in the doctor’s office instead of on the soccer field.
Sonya is an 8 year-old girl who came to me last fall for pain in her foot. She was ultimately diagnosed with Lyme Disease, a condition which can cause rash, arthritis, meningitis or heart block. Lyme Disease is spreading northward, into regions that used to be too cold for tick survival. There’s now Lyme Disease in Maine and Canada, and other tick and mosquito-borne infections are spreading widely across the globe.
Russell was 6 years old when he came to our practice from New Orleans in 2006. His home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, forcing him and his father to move to Virginia to live with relatives. Unfortunately, these relatives did not have the resources to provide for a six- year-old boy coping with trauma. Russell, like so many kids displaced by Katrina, did very poorly in school, ended up in trouble with the law, and is now, at 16, living in a boys’ home for troubled youth. Our unstable climate is creating more severe storms that threaten homes and communities. Rising sea levels place millions of children in coastal regions at risk of displacement. More than 300,000 children under 15 years old live in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. If the next Sandy strikes this vulnerable region, where will these children go?
I have even seen the effects of our changing climate in my own children. My 13 year-old son was at music camp in 2011 during the hottest July ever yet recorded in the DC area. It was 93-106 degrees every day for 7 days. On the last day of camp, I received a call that he had collapsed from heat exhaustion and was being taken to the ER in an ambulance. Kids today are experiencing record heat every year of their lives. The five warmest years on record have all occurred in the past seven years, with 2015 beating out 2014 as the hottest ever.
Every scientific organization in the world is telling us, again and again, that the health and safety of our children and grandchildren depends on our ability to reduce carbon pollution today.The Clean Power Plan is sound public health policy. The 1.86 million children living in Virginia are depending on Governor McAuliffe to implement a strong plan for the state that covers both existing and new power plants and that ensures significant reductions in total electric-sector carbon pollution. Children need healthy air. Children need a livable climate. Children need protection from carbon pollution. I urge Governor McAuliffe to put the health of the commonwealth’s children before polluters’ interests and implement a strong Virginia Clean Power Plan.
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