A recording of Climate for Health’s second webinar in our four-part series, “Making the Connection: Climate Changes Children’s Health,” jointly hosted by the American Public Health Association, is now available for viewing. The success of this webinar, with over 2,000 registered participants, is a testament to the growing interest in climate change’s impacts on the pediatric population. As moderator Dr. Kim Knowlton said, “The health burden from climate change falls far more heavily on people especially vulnerable to its effects, and that includes children. As public health professionals, as parents and as people, we are deeply concerned.”
The bearing that climate has on children’s lives is evident. As the webinar points out, the range, life cycle, growing pattern and disease dynamics of many plants and animals are changing and are affecting human health. Warmer temperatures cause insect range expansion to places where they haven’t before been and impacts the seasonal timing of insect life cycles, which means the breeding season for insects that carry vector-borne diseases is beginning earlier. Warming also results in changes in the growth and allergenicity of some plants. Rising temperatures can harm children through increased heat-related illness, and extreme weather events (flooding, hurricanes, and droughts), which are becoming more frequent due to climate change, can all affect children. These impacts can happen directly, causing injury and death, or indirectly, such as fresh water contamination causing diarrheal illness or mental health impacts from natural disasters.
Why Are Children More Vulnerable?
Based on their physical and cognitive immaturity, children have unique characteristics that do not allow them to cope with environmental stresses like adults. They have higher respiratory rates, which exposes them to higher doses of air pollutants. They ingest a greater volume of food and water per unit of body weight, exposing them to higher levels of toxins, as well as to increased dangers from food and water scarcity. Their immaturity means they may not be able to recognize or respond to threats appropriately. Rather, they are dependent upon their caregivers for their health and safety. Children have windows of vulnerability during which bodily harm can cause permanent disability. For example, under-nutrition at a young age can cause permanent stunting of growth. Children also have greater interaction with the outdoor environment, which increases their exposure to toxins, insect borne diseases, as well as heat.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, a Climate for Health partner, was one of the first medical organizations in the United States to recognize the threat that climate change poses to health, publishing a policy statement and technical report on the subject in 2007, and updating these documents in the fall of 2015.
Who Are These Children?
These children are yours and mine. Drawing on some real life cases, Dr. Samantha Ahdoot, a practicing pediatrician, helped to clarify just what these changes mean in the lives of young children. She spoke about a boy named Logan Johnson, who, in 2010, was practicing basketball in an un-air-conditioned gym in Arkansas, where the heat index had been 110 degrees Fahrenheit for several consecutive days. During practice he developed heat stroke, but it went unrecognized. This was followed by rhabdomyolysis, kidney failure, and pulmonary edema. He was treated successfully in the pediatric care unit with dialysis.
An estimated 88% of the global burden of disease because of climate change occurs in children under the age of 5.
Next, Dr. Ahdoot spoke about “Sam,” a boy that she saw in her practice a few months ago. Sam is a 9-year-old boy with a history of seasonal allergic rhinitis. This spring, he was being treated with three medications: an oral antihistamine, nasal steroid, and an ocular antihistamine. But despite this treatment, he came to Dr. Adhoot one afternoon in April appearing like the photo below, with severe eye redness, drainage, and irritation, and a facial rash. Dr. Ahdoot had to place him on a steroid eye drop.