Health

New report details alarming health impact of climate change on children

Mimi Haddon/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — A new report released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency projects the devastating health impact of climate change on children.

Effects include higher rates of respiratory disease, reduced academic achievement, higher rates of infections and risk of housing insecurity in coastal cities.

“Children have unique vulnerabilities,” Jeremy Martinich, chief of EPA’s Science and Impacts Branch and a co-author of the report, told ABC News. “This report is really intended to provide a new level of specificity about some of these risks.”

One major risk is extreme heat waves, which can have a negative impact on children’s health and education.

Children are more vulnerable to heat-related events such as lightheadedness, fainting, coma or even death in rare cases.

Based on data extrapolated from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project’s Kids’ Inpatient Database , for each 1 degree Fahrenheit increase between May and September, the number of emergency department visits at U.S. children’s hospitals could increase by 113 visits per day.

“When exposed to higher temperatures, children have more difficulty concentrating and learning in the classroom,” Martinich said.

Studies show a 4% to 7% reduction in academic achievement associated with temperature increases of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. This reduction translates to decreased future income for graduating students, which could be as much as $18.3 billion.

While installing air conditioning in educational facilities can help, this may not be an option for economically disadvantaged schools.

Stable housing is also a critical factor in children’s health and development. Increasing frequency of flooding due to the rising sea levels places children in coastal cities at high risk for temporary or permanent displacement from their homes.

The EPA estimates that if we do not adapt to the increased flooding risk, 17.2 million children, or 23% of all children in the U.S, are at risk for housing displacement. Children are also at risk of drowning, disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder from flooding events.

“Under each different level of future rising sea level there’s a whole new population that has been exposed [to flooding] in some parts of the country,” said Martinich.

Playing outdoors is crucial for children’s mental and physical development, however, the effects of climate change will significantly limit their ability to be outside. Warm seasons are getting longer, which leads to increased duration and severity of pollen allergies. Prolonged exposure to pollen has been associated with higher rates of asthma, eczema, hay fever, and even ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Air quality has also sharply decreased due to rising pollution, increasing temperature and wildfires. Infants and children have developing lungs and are more sensitive to toxic exposures than adults. Chronic exposure to pollution is also linked with cardiovascular disease and poor lung function in adulthood. Babies born to mothers exposed to severe air pollution are at risk of being born early or with low birth weight, which can lead to lifelong challenges with growth and development.

The EPA report does not say parents should not let their kids go outside, according to Martinich.

“We’re trying to empower caregivers and parents to be more aware of the risks,” he said, “just like you tell your kids about being careful when crossing the street.”

Parents can monitor daily air quality reports on AirNow.gov, which can be important for kids with asthma. The CDC has tips and resources on preventing toxic exposures for kids.

Similar to the findings of the State of the Air report released last week by the American Lung Association, communities of color face a disproportionate risk of impact. For these communities, the EPA report confirmed much of what they already know.

“It’s alarming, but it’s not surprising,” Courtney Hanson, deputy director of People for Community Recovery, an environmental justice organization on the South Side of Chicago, told ABC News. “[People for Community Recovery] has been advocating and raising the alarm bells about these issues for decades.”

The EPA report represents a key step in political advocacy, according to Gabrielle Browning, director and co-founder of Mom’s Clean Air Force.

“We are really excited about this report because it is the culmination of messaging on the vulnerability of children to climate change,” Browning told ABC News. “For the first time really in history, we have a lot of opportunities to get some things across the finish line.”

Parents can get involved in several ways, experts say.

“[Future generations of children] are going to inherit the world that we’re giving them,” said Martinich. “Let’s give them a safer future. That’s what this report is trying to inform.”

Browning suggests signing a petition that will be delivered to Congress, or calling the local school board to discuss current plans for sustainability.

“Doing something means that you can look your children in the eyes in a decade and say, ‘Yeah I did what I could do. We really tried hard,'” Browning said.

Hanson emphasized community engagement. “Visit the frontline neighborhoods in the city,” she said. “Learning about what’s going on in your own backyard … tends to be very impactful.”

Nisarg Bakshi, D.O., is a pediatrics resident at University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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