Parents will do just about anything to ensure the health of their children, whether that means taking them to the doctor, fighting with or bribing them to take their medicine or even donating an organ in extreme cases.
In spite of all the blood, sweat and tears that parents put into raising their children, there’s one variable that they can’t control that might be putting their child’s health at risk — climate change. How is climate change affecting the health of our children?
Children are more susceptible to the effects of climate change because of their age and small size. When you compare children to adults, a child will breathe more air and drink more water based on size than an adult will, which puts them at higher risk for the damage that can be caused by water and air pollutants.
Their young age and physical immaturity also put them at risk for permanent damage caused by exposure to toxins or other materials in their environment. The dramatic changes in the climate are also making these risks even more dangerous for children around the globe.
Risks Related to Climate Change
What are the primary health risks related to climate change?
- Extreme weather: The changing climate is causing already-dangerous weather systems to become even more deadly — the storms of the 2017 Hurricane Season (Harvey, Irma, Maria) are a testament to this problem.
- Extreme heat: It’s harder for children to regulate body temperature than it is for adults. A heat wave in India in 2015 killed 2,300 people, and temperatures are continuing to climb every year.
- Vector-borne diseases: As temperatures climb, pests like rats and mosquitoes thrive and are able to spread disease. Climbing temperatures also mean that previously extinct strains of viruses and bacteria are reemerging as permafrost melts, as recently happened in Siberia with a 75-year-old strain of Anthrax.
- Poor air and water quality: Children are more susceptible to environmental contaminants than adults are. Poor air and water quality caused by climate change will have a more dramatic impact on child health than on adult health.
- Food insecurity: Climate change doesn’t just directly impact health — it can have other, more indirect effects as well. It makes it harder to grow food or raise livestock, which can contribute to food insecurity. The changing climate might also reduce the nutrients in the food that you’re eating, which can jeopardize child health.
This list offers just a very broad explanation of the different risks that climate change can cause. Each of these can be broken down further into more specific risks — many of which might only apply to certain regions.
What Can We Do?
What can we do, as parents and as adults, to help reduce the impact that climate change is having on children’s health? We can take a few steps:
- Educate: The current presidential administration doesn’t even want to admit that climate change exists, let alone that it’s jeopardizing our children’s health. As an individual, learn as much as you can about this risk and educate your family, friends and community.
- Reduce the carbon footprint: Make small changes in your own life to reduce your carbon footprint. One person driving an electric car, composting or recycling might not seem like much, but if one person becomes two and two become 10, the change can reach a lot further than you might think. One study has shown that climate change can be directly responsible for everything from sunburn and skin cancer to heat stroke, gastrointestinal diseases and drowning.
- Become an advocate: Federal scientists are being discouraged from using the words climate change , so it’s up to us to become advocates for environmental health and sustainability in our own communities, cities, and states. It’s also up to us to understand that children are at higher risk than adults when it comes to climate change-related health problems.
- Be aware of changes in your local environment: Sunny days might seem like a great time to get out and play, but high temperatures can also put both children and adults at risk. Take plenty of steps to ensure that you and your children stay hydrated and cool off frequently. Higher temperatures also mean more people will be spending time at the pool or beach. Take the time to teach your kids about water safety to ensure they can enjoy their water sports safely.
- Pay attention to air quality in your area: Airnow.gov, run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a great resource — you can simply put in your zip code, and it will tell you the current air quality in your area. Avoid outdoor activities, especially those with children involved, on days with poor air quality.
- Avoid pests: For concerns about vector-borne diseases, it’s important to utilize bug spray to keep mosquitoes, ticks and other biting insects off of your children while you’re outdoors. Mosquitoes can be kept to a minimum if you make sure that you don’t leave any standing water in your yard. If you use water decoratively, such as a birdbath or fountain, either make sure the water is constantly flowing or change it out regularly to prevent mosquito eggs from hatching.
Climate change is here
Climate change is here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. These environmental changes can negatively impact our children’s health, so it’s important that we start making some changes to reduce our impact on the environment and help slow climate change.
The first thing you need to do is to be aware of the risks. From there, you can decide how best to act based on that information. One thing is clear though—our children need our protection, and it’s up to us to do the best we can by them and to create for them a world that’s worth saving. All children deserve a healthy environment to grow up in, and we can give them that by working together.