While climate change affects human health in various ways, certain populations, such as pregnant women, the developing fetus, and children are more vulnerable to climate-related health risks. Breathing unhealthy levels of air pollution and/or exposure to more extreme heat and serious events that result from climate change can increase a mother’s risk of poor birth outcomes. Other examples of adverse climate related situations that put expectant mothers at risk include: 1) extreme weather events such as droughts, wildfires, and floods; 2) spread of vector-borne diseases; 3) poor water quality; and 4) lack of healthy and safe food. Maternal exposure to these conditions can lead to spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, pre-term birth, dehydration, renal failure, stress, malnutrition, diarrhea, infectious and respiratory diseases. Fetal exposures can cause neonatal death and developmental anomalies. They can also cause serious health concerns for the newborn and risk for long-term health issues.
Reducing Harm from Climate Change During Pregnancy
In practice, women’s health nurses are increasingly faced with the challenges of addressing the complex topic of climate change in a routine prenatal visit and presenting information in a manner that does not overwhelm the mother to be. By understanding the connection between climate change and women’s health, nurses can be adequately prepared to care for women of child bearing age, pregnant women, and infants affected by climate-related events and help families prevent harm.
To help overcome these challenges, nurses can use the ARAR (Acknowledge, Risk Assessment, Action Plan, and Resources) approach:
- Acknowledge – Present the facts. For example, share with pregnant moms that prolonged exposure to heat can affect the health of both the mother and baby during the pregnancy and postpartum periods.
- Risk Assessment – Identify an individual’s vulnerabilities and risk factors, such as age, health status, income level, occupation, and living conditions.
- Action Plan – Now that individual risks are identified develop a plan to prevent or reduce those hazards.
- Resources – Refer patients to resources such as AirNow.gov and the Center for Disease Control’s Reproductive Health in Emergency Preparedness and Response Toolkit for further education and resources.
Women’s Health Focused Nursing Organizations Lead on Climate
It is important that nurses and other health professionals who care for pregnant women and their children are aware of the health risks posed by climate change. In 2017, the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) finalized a position statement titled “Climate Change and Maternal, Fetal, and Infant Health” to raise awareness on this important issue. In the statement, ACNM called on certified nurse-midwives and certified-midwives to “advocate for evidence-based public health initiatives that address climate change, strive to mitigate emissions locally and within their organizations, and communicate accurate information about the health costs of fossil fuel policies to their clients and policy makers.” (ACNM, 2017).
In addition, the National Association of Nurse Practitioners’ in Women’s Health (NPWH) has joined the Nursing Collaborative on Climate Change and Health, a partnership between the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Climate for Health, and national nursing organizations. The Nursing Collaborative is aimed at building support across the nursing profession to address climate change as a health imperative.
NPWH a national organization representing women’s health nurse practitioners across the United States and is focused on improving the health and wellness of women across the lifespan. NPWH’s involvement in the Nursing Collaborative helps to elevate the vulnerabilities that women, particularly pregnant women experience from climate change and the importance of addressing climate change from the perspective of a women’s health nurse practitioner.
Nurses and nursing organizations have an essential role to play in addressing climate change and health. Join members of the Nursing Collaborative on Climate Change and Health and health leaders from across the country at the American Climate Leadership Summit in Washington, DC on May 1st-2nd as we discuss how to breakthrough on climate solutions. Register for the event here.
ANHE 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.