Climate change poses significant health dangers to the world’s children from such effects as natural disasters, heat stress, air pollution, infectious diseases, and threats to food and water, and pediatricians and lawmakers must find ways to protect this “uniquely vulnerable” population, according to a report and policy statement released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Healthy children need a healthy climate,” said Dr. Samantha Ahdoot, assistant professor of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University school of medicine and the report’s lead author. “Climate change threatens the health, safety, and security of all children. We have a window of opportunity today, in 2015, to take steps that will protect our children and grandchildren from dangerous, potentially irreversible climate change. To knowingly allow this to window to close would be an unprecedented injustice to all current and future children.”
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 88 percent of the current disease burden linked to climate change occurs in children younger than 5, stressing that they suffer disproportionately from climate-sensitive diseases, and are exposed longer to the cumulative damage that climate change exacts. Equally important, WHO says, they bear no responsibility for the actions that cause it.
“Climate change is about the world in which our children are living today and in which they will be raising their own families,” Ahdoot said. “Their future is at stake, yet they do not vote and they have no voice in the debate. Parents and pediatricians must act on their behalf.”
The Academy said that extreme weather, such as superstorms, floods, and wildfires directly put children at risk of injury and death, noting that the frequency of natural disasters has risen during the past four decades, and that extreme weather events tripled between 2000 and 2009 compared with the 1980-1989 period.
Such events can cause loss or separation from caregivers, and the devastation of their homes, schools, and neighborhoods, as well as emotional disorders, said the Academy, which represents 64,000 pediatricians and other health professionals who specialize in caring for children.
Children also are more sensitive to the other effects of global warming, such as exposure to infectious diseases. Lyme disease, for example, affects about 300,000 Americans annually, with young boys — ages 5 to 9 — at greatest risk. “Climate warming has been linked to northern expansion of Lyme disease in North America, putting more American children at risk of this disease,” Ahdoot said.
The report also said that:
- Infants younger than 1 are especially susceptible to death from heat stress, citing one study that predicted an increase in infant heat-related deaths by 5.5 percent in females and 7.8 percent in males by the end of the 21st Century.
- Climate influences a number of infectious diseases, in addition to Lyme, that afflict children globally, including malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Chikungunya, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, diarrheal illnesses, amebic meningoencephalitis — a brain infection — and coccidioidomycosis, a fungal infection also known as Valley Fever.
- Deaths among American high school and college football players from heat stroke have nearly doubled from 15 to 29 from 2000 to 2010.
- There is growing concern that increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are harming the quality of grain, which lessens the protein content of wheat, rice and barley.
- High rates of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms already are occurring in children in the aftermath of climate-related natural catastrophes, such as floods and hurricanes
- Climate change is expected to cause an additional 48,000 deaths from diarrheal diseases in children younger than 15 by 2030, primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Ahdoot, who serves on the executive committee of the Academy’s council on environmental health, said she first became worried and aware of the effects of climate change on children’s health after several personal experiences, including an incident in which her own son, then 9, suffered heat exhaustion at summer camp and was sent via ambulance to the emergency room during the hottest month yet recorded in the Washington, D.C. area.
“My concern grew while I was volunteering as a camp physician and we had to restrict outdoor activities and enforce strict water breaks because of extreme heat,” she said. “Finally, a teenager in our practice who had been displaced by Katrina was faring very poorly in Virginia… These experiences compelled me to research the relationships between climate change and child health.”
The report called upon pediatricians to work to promote medical education related to the impact of climate change on children, including programs in medical schools and during residencies, as well as in continuing education. The group also urged health facilities to reduce their carbon footprint by increasing energy efficiency, and encouraging the use of renewables.
Moreover, pediatricians should discuss climate change with families, suggesting ways to reduce their carbon emissions, such as changing transportation — lowering fuel consumption, for example — and eating more plant-based products. Also, they should help educate children and families, as well as communities on emergency and disaster readiness, using the Academy’s web site pages on children and disasters as a guide.
“Every parent can do something every day that will protect their children from dangerous climate change,” Ahdoot said. “From small steps like using reusable water bottles in lunchboxes or walking the half-mile to the store instead of driving, to bigger steps like letting political leaders know that this issue is important to us. Climate change is a golden opportunity for every mother and father to take action that will protect their child.”
Finally, pediatricians must become advocates to push for local, national, and international policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and for adaptation approaches to climate related events, the group said. The organization stressed that doctors should speak to elected officials about the serious risks to children posed by climate change.
The group recommended that governments promote energy efficiency and renewable energy production at all levels — federal, state and local — while decreasing incentives for continued production and consumption of such carbon-loaded fuels as coal, oil and gas.
The Academy also asked that more money go to public transportation systems and urban planning designs that encourage walking, open spaces, and green building design.
Moreover, governments should include the health sector in national and international policy discussions that address the threats of climate change, and take children into account when addressing disaster preparedness and response, the Academy said.
Also, the organization recommended more public climate change awareness and education specific to children’s health, as well as an increase in research, surveillance, reporting, and tracking of climate-related health effects.
The policy statement, which updates an earlier one issued in 2007, will be published in the November issue of Pediatrics, available online Monday.
“Since the 2007 policy statement, we have gained more knowledge about how climate change is altering the basic natural systems on which children depend,” Ahdoot said.
The National Commission on Children and Disasters report, published in 2010, “described the unique vulnerability of children to extreme weather events,” she added. “We know much more today about how rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations affect plants that can cause allergies, mosquitoes and ticks that carry infectious diseases, and major food crops such as wheat and rice.”
Academy president Sandra G. Hassink said in a statement that “pediatricians have a unique and powerful voice in this conversation due to their knowledge of child health and disease and their role in ensuring the health of current and future children.”
Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer who specializes in health, science and the environment.