Climate-related environmental disasters have not let up this summer. Heat waves are roasting the United States, Europe, China and North Africa (SN: 7/19/23), while wildfires are raging in Canada and Greece. Choking smoke from the Canadian fires has obscured skies throughout the United States (SN: 7/12/23).
This is harmful to everyone, but especially children. The United Nations Children’s Fund calls climate change a child rights crisis. The organization estimates that 1 billion children worldwide – nearly half of all children – are at extremely high risk of the effects of climate change. This threatens the health of these children now and throughout their lives.
Children’s ongoing development from the fetal period through adolescence is one reason that they are particularly vulnerable to health harms from climate-related effects on the environment, says environmental health scientist Frederica Perera of Columbia University. She founded the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health in 1998. Science News talked with Perera about climate change and children’s health and well-being, the disparities in terms of who is at highest risk and why these early harms endanger health throughout life. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SN: How does climate change’s effects on the environment, such as heat waves and wildfire smoke, affect children’s health?
Perera: When we speak of the effects of climate change and air pollution on children, we really need to include the fetal period as well as infancy and childhood and even adolescence, because the brain and other systems are developing all through those periods.
There’s a multitude of health risks. Severe heat is contributing to preterm births, and it’s causing heat-related deaths and illnesses in infants and children. Children are also suffering from severe weather events: they’re suffering physical injury and also psychological trauma. Longer pollen seasons due to climate change are causing more allergy and asthma. Asthma attacks are increased from breathing forest fire smoke. There’s the issue of food insecurity and stunted growth due to drought in certain areas of the world. Infectious diseases [spread by insects and other vectors are] increasing as ticks and mosquitoes have extended their range.
SN: What are some of the physiological reasons that children are at higher risk than adults from the effects of climate change?
Perera: First, there’s the very rapid and complex developmental programming during the fetal period, infancy and childhood, which is vulnerable to disruption by toxic pollutants, climate-related shocks and stressors. A second point is that infants and children don’t have the same fully functioning biologic defense mechanisms that operate in adults to protect them against toxic exposures.
[In terms of heat,] children have less ability to control core body temperature during severe heat waves. The young are dependent on us adults for hydration and for care when there are early indications of heat-related illness.
With respect to air pollution and smoke from forest fires, children are especially vulnerable because of increased exposure. They often spend more time outdoors. [Children have a larger lung surface area and so] breathe more air [per kilogram of] body weight [than adults]. [Children’s noses are less efficient at filtering inhaled] particles, so a higher proportion of these particles penetrates deeply into the lungs. Their narrow airways are more prone to effects of inflammation, and that results in constriction and difficulty breathing.
SN: How does climate change affect children’s mental health?
Perera: Climate change is affecting mental health both directly and indirectly. Children who experience severe storms and floods and wildfires show elevated rates of symptoms of depression and also of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But even if children haven’t directly experienced such a disaster, they’re being affected by climate anxiety. In a survey that covered 10 countries, more than 50 percent [of teens and young people] said they felt very worried or extremely worried about climate change, and this anxiety was negatively affecting their daily lives.
SN: What disparities exist in terms of which children are at greatest risk from climate-related effects on the environment?
Perera: All children are vulnerable, but certain children are hurt first and worst, as we say. This is true globally [in terms of low-income countries compared with high-income countries], and also here in the United States, where communities of color and communities of low income have disproportionately higher exposure to air pollution as well as to severe heat and extreme weather events. If you take the United States, for example, polluting sources like major highways, bus and truck depots, industrial plants and power plants are disproportionately located in and near communities of color and communities of low income. Discriminatory policies like redlining have created urban heat islands.
We see that disproportionate exposure combined with poverty and racism are contributing to the disparities in disease rates. In the U.S., asthma prevalence and infant mortality in Black children are twice the rates seen in white children. The preterm birth rate is 50 percent higher [among Black women compared with white women].
SN: What do these early health harms to children mean for their lives ahead?
Perera: We know that there are long-term effects of these early harms and damages. Respiratory conditions frequently persist. Children with severe or persistent asthma are at increased risk of permanent air flow obstruction and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Reduced intellectual functioning associated with air pollution, and also malnutrition prenatally or in early life, affects the ability to learn, and that affects the ability to earn and contribute to society. Stress and trauma from shocks of climate change and other adverse events that are experienced at a young age can affect mental health throughout life.
We should be thinking about the long-term implications of these early health harms from climate change and air pollution. When we look then at policies and other interventions to eliminate fossil fuel emissions, we see enormous health and associated economic benefits. Children will be the greatest beneficiaries.