Health For AllWomen and Child HealthClimate Change Impact on Children's Health: A Growing Crisis

Climate Change Impact on Children’s Health: A Growing Crisis

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Climate-related environmental disasters have continued to wreak havoc this summer, with heatwaves scorching regions in the United States, Europe, China, and North Africa, while devastating wildfires rage through Canada and Greece. The repercussions of these events are significant for all, but they pose a particularly grave threat to children. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has labeled climate change as a child rights crisis, estimating that nearly half of all children worldwide, approximately 1 billion in number, are highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. This imperils their current well-being and threatens their health throughout their lifetimes.

Frederica Perera, an environmental health scientist from Columbia University, who founded the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, highlights that children’s ongoing development, spanning from fetal stages through adolescence, renders them exceptionally susceptible to the health risks stemming from climate-related environmental effects.

Impact on Children’s Health

The detrimental impacts on children’s health are manifold. Severe heat contributes to preterm births, heat-related fatalities, and illnesses among infants and children. Moreover, children face physical injuries and psychological trauma due to extreme weather events. Climate change extends pollen seasons, leading to increased allergies and asthma cases, with asthma exacerbations driven by inhaling smoke from forest fires. Droughts in certain regions of the world are causing food insecurity and stunted growth. Additionally, infectious diseases transmitted by insects, such as ticks and mosquitoes, are on the rise.

Physiological Vulnerability of Children

Children’s heightened vulnerability to climate change is rooted in their rapid and intricate developmental processes during fetal development, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. These stages are susceptible to disruption from toxic pollutants, climate-induced shocks, and stressors. Furthermore, infants and children lack the fully developed biological defense mechanisms present in adults, leaving them more exposed to toxic substances.

In terms of heat, children struggle to regulate their core body temperature during severe heatwaves. They rely on adults for hydration and early detection of heat-related illnesses. Regarding air pollution and forest fire smoke, children are at increased risk due to higher exposure levels, extended outdoor activities, larger lung surface areas (resulting in greater air intake per kilogram of body weight), less efficient particle filtration in their noses, and narrower airways that are prone to inflammation, constriction, and breathing difficulties.

Impact on Children’s Mental Health

Climate change directly and indirectly affects children’s mental health. Children exposed to severe storms, floods, and wildfires exhibit higher rates of depression symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even those who haven’t directly experienced such disasters suffer from climate anxiety. A global survey covering ten countries found that over 50 percent of teenagers and young individuals felt very or extremely worried about climate change, negatively affecting their daily lives.

Disparities in Vulnerability

Although all children are vulnerable to climate change, certain populations are disproportionately affected. Globally, low-income countries and marginalized communities face higher exposure to air pollution, severe heat, and extreme weather events. In the United States, communities of color and low-income communities experience elevated risks due to discriminatory policies, such as redlining, and the disproportionate location of polluting sources in these areas. This exposure, coupled with poverty and racism, contributes to disparities in disease rates, including higher rates of asthma, infant mortality, and preterm birth among Black children compared to their white counterparts.

Long-Term Consequences

The early health impacts of climate change on children have lasting repercussions. Respiratory conditions often persist, with children experiencing severe or persistent asthma at increased risk of permanent airway obstruction and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Reduced intellectual functioning, resulting from air pollution and prenatal or early-life malnutrition, affects learning abilities, future earning potential, and societal contributions. Stress and trauma stemming from climate change and adverse events experienced during youth can affect mental health throughout life.

A Call for Action

It is crucial to consider the long-term implications of the early health harms inflicted by climate change and air pollution. Policies and interventions to eliminate fossil fuel emissions promise substantial health and economic benefits, with children being the primary beneficiaries of these initiatives.


This article was originally published by ScienceNews.

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