What's Climate Change Doing to Our Kids' Health?
When I daydream about what the future holds for my one-year-old and three-year old children, I’m filled with happiness at all the good to come. I pull from memories of my childhood—long beach days, plenty of competitive sports, and lifelong friendships that start before you can read. Yet, it’s already clear that their childhood will be vastly different from mine. Joyous, I hope, but under the thumb of a changing climate, no doubt.
They don’t know it yet, but extreme weather will become commonplace in their lives, as we increasingly see now. In our little corner of the world on the southern coast of New Jersey, we’ve had to shelter in place for the first time in my memory under threats of tornados, something I never did as a child. We see a seasonal cycle of beach erosion, not necessarily new, but more menacing and pervasive now. I’ve lived through Hurricane Sandy, seen family members lose their homes, and heard of fish swimming in my cousin’s flooded school. Yet things are still relatively calm here compared to other areas of the globe.
No matter where you live, climate change will affect our kids’ lives, if it hasn’t already. According to a report from UNICEF, The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis, one billion kids are at an extremely high risk from climate change and that number is likely to rise. (You can read the full report here.)
Health risks are a major concern. The ripple effects may influence their ability to be active, worsen some chronic conditions, and could hinder their mental health, just to name a few. Yet, we can help protect them, continue to work towards evading the worst-case scenarios of climate change, and adapt to a new normal. When it all feels overwhelming, knowing what risks they face is a good place to start.
Why Climate Change Has a Greater Effect on Kids’ Health
As researchers at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE who focus on the effects of climate change on kids put it, “Kids are not little adults.” Children are in a constant state of development and growth—this includes their immune systems, organs, brain, and even maturity— leaving them more vulnerable to adverse effects from negative events. For example, the team noted, “They breathe at a faster rate, increasing their exposure to
Children are more vulnerable to climate and environmental shocks than adults for a number of reasons:
1. They are physically more vulnerable, and less able to withstand and survive shocks such as floods, droughts, severe weather, and heatwaves.
2. They are psychologically more vulnerable. Toxic substances, such as lead and other forms of pollution, affect children more than adults, even at lower doses of exposure.
3. They are more at risk of death compared with adults from diseases that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, such as malaria and dengue.
4. They have their whole life ahead of them— any deprivation as a result of climate and environmental degradation at a young age can result in a lifetime of lost opportunity.
UNICEF expands on this notion in its report noting a variety of reasons including kids’ vulnerability to extreme weather events, toxins, and disease.
The report also points out that each of these adverse risks can overlap each other. “These climate and environmental hazards, shocks, and stresses do not occur in isolation. Droughts, floods, and severe weather, coupled with other environmental stresses, compound one another. These hazards can not only exacerbate each other, but also marginalize pockets of society and increase inequality.”
The Health Risks from Climate Change for Children
Some of the risks of climate change may be more obvious than others. Yet the domino effect of tipping the delicate balance of our natural world can be far reaching and expose vulnerabilities the average person may not think of.
One instance that drove this idea home for me came out of a study from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It uncovers how climate change will lead to an increase in kidney stones. The authors explain that with an increase in heat comes an increase in the incidence of kidney stones due to dehydration. They highlighted how this increase in disease could potentially put an added burden of $99.4 million on the healthcare system in just South Carolina alone, the model location.
Below are some of the major—and sometimes dizzying—ways research shows the children of the world may be affected by climate change.
Burning fossil fuel is the top contributor to climate change. It creates airborne fine particulate matter that’s responsible for about one in five deaths worldwide, according to a 2021 study published in Environmental Research.
As I noted before, children are at an increased risk with their developing lungs. The research found that respiratory infections from fossil fuel pollution leads to thousands of deaths each year for kids under five years old. Living in cities with higher pollution levels, less green spaces, and near busy roads can put kids at even higher pollution exposure.
The burning of fossil fuels also raises temperatures, which leads to an extended and intensified pollen season. This can cause a worsening of respiratory issues like seasonal allergies and asthma. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pollen season in North America has increased 20 days since 1990.
Wildfires also create air pollution by indiscriminately burning everything in its pathway, emitting toxic smoke into the air that can endanger children who breathe it in. According to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, smoke from wildfires is 10 times more harmful for kids’ respiratory health.
While there used to be a season in which wildfires typically occurred in the Western part of the United States, it now extends longer than usual because of increased droughts and elevated temperatures. The air pollution doesn’t stay local either. When wildfires rage in the west, the poor air quality travels across the country with the shifting weather patterns.
Air pollution can also have a major effect on children’s health even before they are born. In Dr. Susan E. Pacheco’s article, “Catastrophic effects of climate change on children’s health start before birth,” she details all the ways that climate change can affect pregnant mothers and their developing fetuses. In it she shares that, “Fetal exposure to air pollution has been associated with prematurity; LBW [low birth weight]; atopic diseases, including asthma, aero allergies, and eczema; impaired lung development; neurodevelopmental conditions, such as ASD; thinner brain cortex and impaired inhibitory control; cognitive impairment; and malignancy.”
Air Quality Trackers
How Parents Can Prepare
Monitoring the air quality where you live is a great way to stay informed. You can search your local weather app for daily pollen counts as well. If your child has asthma or allergies, change their clothes and wash their hands and face when they come inside during high pollen count days. Some families turn to indoor air purifiers, especially if they live where wildfires are common, yet this option is often too expensive for many.
2020 was the hottest year on record and roughly 820 million kids are currently exposed to heatwaves, according to UNICEF’s report. The fallout of extreme heat is wide ranging. When kids are exposed to higher temperatures for long periods, they may become sick with symptoms ranging from the mild, like headaches, to the serious, like heatstroke. Those with underlying medical conditions may be at more risk for serious outcomes, too.
When body temperature reaches 104° , heatstroke can occur and cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles in children according to data from Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. Infants are less able to regulate their temperature and therefore are more likely to die from heatstroke.
When the heat rises, the risk level for outdoor athletes also rises, especially during pre-season and summer training. Likewise, when it’s too hot to play outdoors, kids may not be getting enough access to exercise. With less time spent being active, kids are at more risk of being overweight and obese.
Extreme heat can also make learning harder if the conditions in which they are learning are uncomfortable and lacking in proper ventilation, according to UNICEF’s report.
Warmer temperatures can bring an increased risk in disease as well. With changing weather, humidity, and heat patterns in certain parts of the world, mosquitos that carry the viruses that cause malaria and dengue fever are able to proliferate. Kids are more vulnerable to poor outcomes from both, according to UNICEF, and in 2019, 67% of malaria deaths around the world were from children.
Where We Could Be Headed Heatwise
“Without global action to reduce heat-trapping emissions, the number of days per year when the heat index—or “feels like” temperature—exceeds 100°F would more than double from historical levels to an average of 36 across the country by midcentury and increase four-fold to an average of 54 by late century.”
How Parents Can Prepare
When temperatures are extreme, parents, guardians, school officials, and coaches need to be vigilant for signs of heat exhaustion (e.g., fast, strong pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, etc.) and heatstroke (e.g., cold, pale, and clammy skin, fast, weak pulse, fainting, etc.) in kids. See the CDC’s full list of what to look for and what to do. To prevent overheating from happening, check the heat index in the summer, avoid being outdoors or active in the hottest part of the day, drink plenty of fluids, wear light clothing, and utilize shade. Early mornings and dusk are usually good times to get outside for light activity when heat is an issue. You could schedule a post-dinner family walk or enjoy breakfast outdoors when temps are high.
Natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, cyclones, and tornadoes are increasing in regularity and can put children in immediate danger. These events can destroy homes and communities, take away access to learning opportunities, and make food, clean drinking water, and sanitation scarce. Floods and water contamination present a serious risk for children who are especially vulnerable to water-borne illnesses. According to UNICEF’s report, over half a million children die from diarrhea, mostly from contaminated water each year.
Droughts lead to food scarcity and undernourishment and affect the most vulnerable around the planet who can’t afford the inflated food prices. The report details that “Climate change affects both agricultural incomes and food prices, and so both farmers and consumers (particularly those who spend a high proportion of their incomes on food) are at greater risk of being pushed into poverty.”
How Parents Can Prepare
For natural disasters, families should have pre-packed bags—filled with essentials— prepared when threats arise and always follow local evacuation orders. These packs should include non-perishable food, water, batterypowered flashlights, cell phone chargers, blankets, and first aid kits. (Visit ready.gov for a full list.)
What the Expert Says
I reached out to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) who focuses on the health impacts of the climate crisis on children’s health. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What is your biggest health concern for children with climate change?
“Climate change impacts every organ in a child’s body, from their heart and lungs to their brains, and research shows that children’s bodies may feel the effects of climate change just as much, if not more so in some cases, than adults. I have been heartened to see greater attention over the years on combating the root causes of climate change, especially on how to reduce reliance on fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) for our transportation and electricity, as burning fossil fuels harms our children, especially those growing up in low-wealth homes and communities. This means that every action we take to transition to clean energy can immediately benefit our children’s health and promote health equity.”
Q: How can parents prepare for and protect their children against the effects of climate change?
“Most towns and cities want to stop burning fossil fuels and become more resilient to climate change, and parents can play a role in shaping those efforts. Ask the local leaders at your school, religious institution, or local government if your community has a climate action plan, and how your neighborhood can become more resilient to climate shocks and healthier by making it greener, more walkable, and bike-friendly. You can ask decisionmakers to improve access to public transit, create policies for healthy school environments, invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, and add green space by planting trees. These actions will benefit everyone’s health and especially the health of our children.”
Q: Lastly, what effects of climate change do you see in your community?“
In Boston where I am a pediatrician, we are already seeing the effects of climate change in children, especially in communities that were historically redlined, which tend to be hotter and have less green space than in surrounding neighborhoods. Climate change matters to everyone’s health, but especially to children who have more obstacles and fewer resources—like children living on the frontlines of pollution, children with chronic medical problems, children from low-wealth communities, and children who face discrimination or live in areas shaped by racist policies. Policies and programs that focus on frontline communities, such as those that add greenspace or invest in converting diesel buses to electric, can improve child health equity.”
The Psychological Effects
The idea of climate change and its impending doom can be scary for kids, as it certainly is for adults. Beyond the existential anxieties, the realities of experiencing a natural disaster can do lasting psychological harm to children. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common responses to the traumas associated with events like losing your home, or a family member, or even access to basic hygiene and food and water.
According to Harvard Chan C-Change, Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) like those associated with natural disasters can create “toxic stress” that can harm brain and physical development. They explain, “ACEs can lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment as well as risk-taking behaviors that lead to chronic diseases throughout life.”
How Parents Can Prepare
The team at Harvard maintains that the best way to prepare young people for the effects of climate change is to instill a sense of resiliency in them. They also suggest being a supportive force in their lives while also setting good examples of how you respond to adversity in your life. In acute situations, remember that your kids are looking to you in how to respond, so remaining steady and calm is imperative to helping them feel safe.
Climate Change Inequity
As is often the case, those living with less are more vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change. Furthermore, these populations are also the least responsible for the causes of climate change. According to UNICEF, “The highest-risk places on Earth contribute least to the causes of climate change—the 33 extremely high-risk countries emit less than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The 10 most extremely high-risk countries emit only 0.5% of global emissions.”
Resources for Talking Climate Change with Your Kids
How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst into Action by Harriet Shugarman
Earth’s Ekko - Together We Can Make A World of Difference A film from Plastic Oceans International
Likewise, UNICEF notes in its report, “Not only do climate and environmental hazards negatively affect children’s access to key essential services, but children’s lack of access to key essential services also reduces their resiliency and adaptive capacity, further increasing their vulnerability to climate and environmental hazards. Thus, a vicious cycle is created, pushing the most vulnerable children deeper into poverty at the same time as increasing their risk of experiencing the worst and most life-threatening effects of climate change.”
How You Can Do Your Part
Investments on a global scale to drastically lower carbon emissions, switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy, reduce water and food scarcity, strengthen healthcare, improve education, reduce poverty, and create social safety nets are imperative for governments to enact now.
While those are the biggest changes needed to protect children, there are also things you can do on an individual level for your family. Talk to your pediatrician about your local and personal risks. Support organizations fighting climate change. (We love Plastic Oceans, Science Moms, UNICEF, amongst others.) Get involved at the local legislative level.
Do the work at home to reduce, reuse, recycle, eat less meat, shop ethically, grow a home garden, compost, and beyond. And educate those around you on the risks we face now and in the decades to come. As always, once we collectively know better, we can collectively do better.
Despite everything I’ve laid out, I’m hopeful for my kids’ generation, for the sustainable advances already happening (We’ll explore this in the future), and for everyone choosing to do better for each other and the planet.