Climate change has wide-ranging impacts on children’s physical and mental health as well as their education, home and future income, according to a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
These impacts often are felt disproportionately by Black, Indigenous and low-income families.
“Understanding health risks to children is critical for developing effective and equitable strategies that will protect our current and future generations,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a press release. “Today’s report will help further efforts being taken by the Biden Administration across the Federal government to address the climate crisis and advance environmental justice.”
The report, “Climate Change and Children’s Health and Well-Being in the United States,” is part of the EPA’s Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis project. It looks at five climate stressors — extreme heat, air quality, changing seasons, flooding and infectious diseases. It notes children’s developing bodies make them “uniquely vulnerable to climate change” and that the physical, psychological and social impacts are different than for adults.
The messages echo those the AAP has been taking to state and federal lawmakers, regulators and even the Supreme Court.
“For more than 20 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been calling for aggressive policies to halt climate change,” said AAP CEO/Executive Vice President Mark Del Monte, J.D., who will speak on the topic at a Clinton Foundation event next month. “Today’s EPA report is another urgent and clear message that we must prevent this harm to children’s health.”
Children cannot regulate their body temperature as efficiently as adults, and excess heat can lead to fainting, organ failure, seizures, coma or even death, according to the report. High heat also has been linked to increased risks of anxiety or depression. In addition, it makes it difficult for students to sleep and to concentrate, both of which impact learning.
The quality of the air children breathe can impact their respiratory function, leading to diseases like asthma and cancer, the report says. Poor air quality can increase children’s emergency department (ED) visits and hospital admissions and result in missing school. Infants exposed in utero can experience preterm birth and birth defects.
Children’s respiratory function also will be impacted by longer warm seasons and shorter cool seasons that result in longer pollen exposure.
Increases in flooding leaves children vulnerable to drowning, waterborne pathogens and mold, according to the report. A global sea level rise of 50 centimeters could result in 185,000 children in coastal areas losing their homes and just over 1 million additional children being displaced temporarily.
Climate “shocks” like wildfires, floods and hurricanes “destroy homes and community,” said Aaron S. Bernstein, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, chair of the AAP Council on Environmental Health and Climate Change whose research was included in the report. “They impoverish families. They uproot families. Those things all can result in adverse childhood events, and those have very broad health effects across the lifespan.”
Climate change also can mean ticks and mosquitoes are seen in more areas for longer periods each year, leading to increases in Lyme disease and West Nile virus.
The EPA projected that a 2-degree Celsius increase in global average temperature could have the following annual impacts above the baseline:
- 4% reduction in average academic achievement relative to average annual gains due to heat,
- $6.9 billion loss of future income across graduating high school students due to heat,
- 34,500 additional asthma cases and 6,240 additional ED visits for asthma due to air quality,
- 2.22 million lost school days due to air quality,
- seven additional infant deaths due to air quality,
- 332 additional hospital admissions for respiratory illness due to air quality,
- 41,000 additional first-time doctor visits for allergic rhinitis and 5,800 additional ED visits for asthma due to pollen exposure, and
- 2,600 additional cases of Lyme disease due to climate change.
Many of these effects fall disproportionately on people who are Black, Indigenous, people of color, have low income, speak limited English and lack health insurance.
The report “demonstrates how climate change can have unequal effects on overburdened populations due to differences in exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity, which are influenced by historic inequities deeply rooted in our laws, policies, and institutions,” authors wrote.
Dr. Bernstein, interim director of The Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, applauded the EPA’s comprehensive evaluation.
“When we’re trying to understand what we stand to gain from taking climate action, we really need to appreciate the vast potential health savings to children through their lifespans that come with better air quality, less exposure to heat and fewer destructive weather events,” he said. “It’s really great to see an effort like this to compile that.”
The report highlights some of the actions individuals and communities can take such as using greener transportation, managing their energy use and waste generation, planting trees, building sustainable neighborhoods, protecting themselves from environmental hazards and preparing their families for disasters.
Dr. Bernstein said pediatricians can provide guidance to families on protecting themselves from heat and poor air quality. They can emphasize that actions that are good for preventing climate change like eating less meat, taking public transportation, walking and biking also are good for individual health.
“There’s a really positive and encouraging message we can really do good things for you as a person, and we can be confident that those are going to make this world we have together a place that you’re going to want to grow up and thrive in,” Dr. Bernstein said.
He hopes to see more research on the impact of climate change on children and health equity.
“I hope it is a clarion call to the research community that we really need to understand what’s at stake for children more,” he said. “But even more so that we need to understand interventions to protect children and other groups that may be more at risk from climate change. Because the horse is out of the barn. And we know far too little given what we already see.”
- AAP resources on climate change
- AAP policy Global Climate Change and Children’s Health
- AAP policy Ambient Air Pollution: Health Hazards to Children
- Information for parents from HealthyChildren.org on how climate change, heat and air pollution affect children’s health
- Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units