Climate change has significant impacts on the health and well-being of children and families
After a summer of extreme heat and poor air quality conditions across the country, the impact of climate change on children and families cannot be ignored. Children and pregnant people are especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change due to physiological differences and the growth, development and physical changes that occur during childhood and pregnancy.
Parents, caregivers and individuals can take steps to protect themselves and their children from climate-related health impacts. But policymakers must also consider how to prevent and address these health impacts as they become more common.
Extremely hot temperatures can have negative impacts on children’s physical and psychosocial health and cognitive abilities. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects a 4% reduction in annual academic achievement per child due to the impacts extreme heat can have on children’s learning capabilities. Extreme heat disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic or Latino and low-income students, who are the least likely to have air conditioning in their schools. The EPA also expects emergency room visits among children due to heat-related conditions to increase between May and September each year as temperatures rise. Extreme heat can also increase the chances of premature birth and low birth weight for pregnant women and people.
It is important that parents and caregivers educate themselves and their children on proper hydration and the early signs of dehydration, and limit their and their children’s time outdoors in hot temperatures. Pregnant people should also take steps to protect themselves in extreme heat by limiting time outdoors, staying hydrated, avoiding caffeine, salt and alcohol and wearing loose-fitting clothing. More outdoor safety practices to protect children, infants and pregnant people from extreme heat can be found on the EPA’s website.
Exposure to poor air quality can significantly impact the health, growth and development of children as well as pregnant people and their babies. This is a significant concern in Colorado – the high frequency of wildfires in our state has greatly contributed to increasingly poor air quality over the last several years, and Colorado has set records for the number of days with high ozone in recent years. The EPA found that the rates of childhood respiratory illnesses such as asthma have increased due to poor air quality and greater exposure to pollutants, and exposure to poor air quality in childhood has also been associated with difficulty learning and greater susceptibility to bronchitis, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adulthood. Exposure to poor air quality during pregnancy has been associated with preterm birth, low birth weight, and other birth defects. Increases in emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths among newborns are expected due to increasingly poor air quality.
Parents, caregivers, and pregnant people can check the Air Quality Index for their local area here, and should avoid letting their children play outside when the air quality is unsafe. They should also reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke and pollutants by closing windows and doors and using high-efficiency HVAC systems if possible, however, we acknowledge that financial barriers exist for some families to be able to have these systems in their homes. Therefore, financial supports should be provided for families of lower incomes to install HVAC systems in their homes, and rental companies should consider installing these in all units that they lease to renters. More information on how to safeguard indoor air quality during wildfires can be found on the EPA’s website.
Warmer temperatures and more frequent rainfall are extending the growing season in some parts of the country, causing longer and more intense allergy seasons for children and families. The EPA predicts that due to climate change-induced increases in pollen, which can cause seasonal allergic rhinitis (also known simply as seasonal allergies), emergency department visits for asthma are projected to increase 17% to 30%. Children and families who are underinsured or uninsured are more likely to be financially burdened by these health impacts.
Parents and caregivers can also use the Air Quality Index forecast to check their local area’s pollen concentrations and should limit their child’s time outdoors when these levels are high. They should also consult their child’s pediatrician or health care provider about allergy testing and medication and how to recognize the signs of seasonal allergies.
Vector-borne diseases, which are diseases transmitted to humans by fleas, ticks and mosquitos, are expected to increase due to changes in climate that facilitate the increasing presence of these insects year-round. The EPA predicts a 31% increase in Lyme disease cases due to climate change, and Lyme disease can cause a range of negative health outcomes in children, such as juvenile arthritis, if left undiagnosed or if diagnosis is delayed. Cases of West Nile Virus are also expected to increase, which can have significant health impacts for children with pre-existing conditions. Cases of Zika Virus may also increase, which can be transmitted from a pregnant person to their fetus. Zika in fetuses can cause a number of fetal birth defects, and there is no medication to treat Zika.
Parents and caregivers should educate their children on how to avoid exposure to ticks and mosquitoes, such as wearing long sleeves and pants and applying insect repellant, and pregnant people should take these same precautions. They should also consult with their child’s pediatrician or health care provider on the early signs of some of the most common vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease.
Climate change can also have a profound impact on kids’ mental health. Experiencing natural disasters such as wildfires can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health consequences for kids and their families. Research points to a connection between air pollution and extreme heat and depression and anxiety. Surveys have also found that many young people report deeply-felt anxiety related to a changing climate.
The solutions to these challenges are multifaceted. Policymakers can take steps to understand and mitigate the impact of climate change and its consequences on children and families both in Colorado and across the nation. For instance, collecting data about climate-related health impacts could point providers and policymakers toward areas that need particular attention. Improving access to health coverage could improve Coloradans’ access to care for climate-related health impacts when they need it. More specific policies targeting emerging issues like extreme heat, such as creating extreme heat plans that address the needs of people who are most likely to be impacted, can make a difference in health outcomes.
We know children and families’ environments have an impact on their health and well-being, and understanding what changes to Colorado’s climate mean for kids’ and families’ health can help us prepare to support health now and in the years to come.