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Protecting the environment protects child health

July 1, 2022

Last month, we moved back into our home, nearly four years after it was destroyed by a California wildfire. In November 2018, the Santa Ana winds rapidly spread the Woolsey Fire over a drought-stricken 151 square miles of mountainous and coastal terrain in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Three people were killed, 250,000 evacuated and 1,643 structures were destroyed.

Investigators determined faulty electrical equipment combined with poor vegetation control near communication conductor lines caused the fire. Yet, six consecutive years of drought brought on by a warming world also played a major factor.

The discussion around climate threats can feel abstract or distant from our daily lives — until it isn’t. Fire season is now year-round in California and other Western states.

Though many of us think the impact of climate change will be felt far from where and how we live, the reality is we exist within the natural world and are governed by its forces. Climate change affects every aspect of the circle of life. It leads to more severe weather patterns and causes drought, flooding, dust bowls, crop failure, lack of potable water, wildfires, melting ice packs, species loss, worsening poverty, disease, mortality, mass migrations and conflict among humans worried about their own resources and survival.

There is a phrase in Judaism, “tikkun olam,” that means to “repair the world.” As pediatricians, we have a special interest in mitigating climate change because children are uniquely vulnerable to its impacts. Children breathe more, and their lungs are more susceptible to damage from ground-level ozone. They respond more to heat, and their immune systems are still developing. It is estimated that children will feel up to 88% of the health consequences of global warming.

Climate change also discriminates. It affects children living in poverty more than those from families with better resources and wealthier communities and countries. In fact, climate change is recognized as a social determinant of health (https://bit.ly/3NCBe5j) that can lead to more asthma flare-ups, emergency department visits and vector-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and malaria.

In 2007, the AAP was the first major medical society to publish a policy statement on the effects of climate change on our patients. Our Council on Environmental Health and Climate Change (https://bit.ly/3LQEPvk),which all are welcome to join, is the home for Academy members interested in and concerned about children’s environmental health.

The council’s policy statements form the basis of our advocacy and contain recommendations about what we can do in our practices, communities and at all levels of government to protect the environment.

Pediatricians are uniquely positioned to advocate for sustainable electricity-generating systems, accessible public transportation, plant-based food availability and green spaces that ultimately affect child and family health. We also can translate the science for administrators, policymakers and families as we:

  • promote medical education regarding the effects of climate change on the environment and child health; 
  • encourage diets that are more plant- than animal-based;
  • reduce the carbon and environmental footprint of health facilities, including hospitals, medical offices and transport services;
  • increase energy efficiency, incorporate renewable energy sources, reduce waste and promote public transportation as well as walking and bicycling, and
  • advocate for local, national and international policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve preparedness for anticipated climate-associated effects and emergency and disaster readiness.

I am pleased to report the Academy is practicing sustainability at our headquarters in Itasca, Ill., and Washington, D.C. We also are investing our reserve funds and endowments with companies that seek to reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, promote environmental responsibility and seek solutions to climate change.

My husband, Peter (a fellow pediatrician), and I have always tried to be good stewards of the environment, but “tikkun olam” has taken on heightened meaning as we rebuild our home and advocate for the rights of children to live in a clean, safe environment.

We pediatricians care for the future because we care for children. So too, we care for and about the world they will inherit from us. Let’s all come together to “tikkun olam.”

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