Climate Change and Air Pollution Affect Kids’ Health

CLimate changes affect everyone but children the most. Their small bodies—and the fact that they grow so rapidly, starting from the time they’re in utero—make them more vulnerable to toxins, pollution, and other climate-change fallout. Children are also more likely to be exposed to climate change over their lives than adult counterparts.

The publication of a new scientific review article in the New England Journal of Medicine shows just how dangerous climate-related threats are to children’s health. The researchers analyzed data about the specific effects of a rapidly warming planet and found that climate change, driven in large part by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, harms children’s mental and physical health from the time they are in the womb through childhood—with potentially lifelong effects. These dangers threaten many aspects of children’s health, from the development of their lungs, to their intellectual ability, to their mental health. Children who are economically and socially disadvantaged are most at risk, however all children are affected. “It’s not just polar bears on melting icebergs,” says study co-author Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. “There is direct harm, now, to children’s health—and certainly their future is being jeopardized in a major way.”

Policies that shift countries away from fossil fuels to renewable, more efficient sources of energy are likely to improve kids’ health, the study authors say. For young patients to be better served, doctors and nurses should learn more about climate change’s health effects. “We know how to do it; we know alternatives, and they’re working in different countries,” Perera says. “We just have to speed the process up…and put into effect the solutions we know work.”

According to new research, these are the three biggest threats that climate change poses and could threaten every child in the world.

Polluted air

Air pollution affects children’s health in many ways. Children are exposed to fine particulate matter from polluted atmosphere. This is because they breathe in the dust created by fossil fuel-burning vehicles, factories and other sources. Air-pollution exposure to the fetus during a mother’s pregnancy has also been linked to low birth weight, premature births and stillbirths; scientists hypothesize that may be because air pollution can result in inflammation that makes it hard for nutrition to get to the fetus, says Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was not part of the latest study. “Particulate pollution is a source of infant death, including stillbirth and death in infancy,” says Bernstein. Air pollution can also harm children’s lung growth and functioning, and put them at higher risk for conditions like respiratory infections, bronchitis and asthma.

Other research suggests that air pollution can adversely affect children’s minds starting in utero. An expecting mother’s exposure to air pollution particles “can be directly toxic to the developing brain” of her fetus, says Perera. “They are able to traverse the placenta.” One research review published in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology Numerous studies linking air pollution and lower cognitive functions in children were published in 2020. Another study has shown that pollution can cause anxiety and depression.

Pollutants also contribute to climate change—which, in turn, increases air pollution by fueling many of the conditions that cause wildfires, including heat and drought. Additionally, higher temperatures could contribute to the growth of ozone. Ozone is a pollutant which damages the lungs and makes it worse such conditions as asthma.

Less nutritious food

The climate change is threatening one of the key building blocks of children’s growth: nutritious food. Drought, flooding and high temperatures are all becoming more frequent causes of food crop destruction. These events can cause food prices to rise and even make it less affordable. Even if children have enough food they may lack adequate nutrition. Research shows that carbon dioxide can make foods less nutritious.

It is essential that children get enough nutrients and calories to grow healthy. If kids are under-nourished, “their brains don’t develop normally,” says Bernstein. “It affects every organ.”

Experts predict that global hunger will only get worse. In 2021, about 193 million people were acutely food insecure—which the United Nations defines as food inadequacy that endangers lives or livelihoods—and about 26 million children were suffering from wasting, a condition in which kids don’t have enough weight for their height, according to the World Food Programme.

Traumas more

Children are more at risk in a world that is changing due to climate change. As a consequence of climate change, extreme weather events, such as drought and famine, are more likely to occur. These conflicts, along with the violence that they tend to cause, are also becoming more prevalent. Climate-driven droughts are thought to be responsible for the eruption of war in Syria in 2011. Hotter planets make it more common for children to experience trauma. In 2021 alone, UNICEF estimated that 2.4 million children had been displaced due to natural disasters.

As a child, it is believed that major trauma can increase the risk of developing mental illness like depression and physical ailments such as asthma, cancer, stroke, or other serious illnesses. Stress in expecting mothers can also harm their fetus’ cognitive development.

“If your house gets burned down or flooded by a hurricane, if you’re impoverished because your family’s livelihood has been destroyed by drought—these are adverse childhood events,” says Bernstein, “and they can accumulate and exact harms across the lifespan.”

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