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Climate change takes a major toll on children's health

The air we breathe, the weather we play in, the world we know – it’s all changing fast. Unfortunately, kids are the first to feel it. Climate change is the culprit behind this rapid shift in the wellbeing of children.

To understand how it impacts children’s health, researchers at the University of Western Australia embarked on an innovative study.

The team took a massive data dive, scouring scientific databases for connections between any type of climate change and any kind of health concern in children under 18.

“We’ve crunched the data to show how certain types of future weather events will worsen particular medical issues in the population,” explained study co-author Professor Corey Bradshaw of Flinders University.

Studying children and climate change

The study reveals a worrying 60% surge in the risk of preterm birth associated with temperature extremes. Preterm birth, occurring before 37 weeks, is not only a leading cause of infant death, but also carries lifelong health and developmental repercussions for children.

This isn’t just a personal tragedy, it’s a societal one. Premature births translate to higher healthcare costs, longer hospital stays, and a cascade of challenges for families and communities.

Impact of air pollution 

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution from climate change than adults. Their developing bodies, especially their lungs, are affected by the harmful effects of air pollution. This study shines a light on the invisible dangers lurking in car fumes, factory smoke, and even dust, revealing a devastating impact on young lives.

Nitrogen oxides

Nitrogen oxides, spewed by vehicles and factories, top the list of culprits. These invisible gases inflame delicate lung airways and worsen asthma. For children, this translates to stunted growth and a lifetime of breathing difficulties.

Smoke and fine dust

The study also exposes the silent threat of fine dust, a ubiquitous enemy that triggers infections, exacerbates asthma, and throws a wrench into lung development. Smoke from burning materials, another common foe, adds to the misery, causing bronchitis and further hindering young lungs.

Lifetime of health challenges 

The message is clear: air pollution, in all its forms, is a silent menace for children. It’s not just about coughs and wheezes; it’s about stolen breaths, stunted growth, and a lifetime of health challenges. We can’t afford to ignore this invisible enemy any longer.

Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, pose a significant threat to children’s health, according to the study. Hospital and emergency room admissions for children spiked during these periods, which were instigated by climate change. Tragically, extreme temperatures are also claiming the lives of children. 

Immediate action is needed

Moreover, children from low-income families face a heightened risk of illness due to temperature fluctuations. This exposes them to greater vulnerability in the face of climate change’s impacts on health.

Children, particularly those in poverty-stricken nations, bear the brunt of climate change’s burden. The study reveals a troubling research gap in poorer regions, suggesting that the true impact on children’s health might be significantly worse than what we currently know.

Climate change acts as a health inequity amplifier, jeopardizing the well-being of young lives. The researchers are calling for immediate global action to mitigate climate change and prioritize support for vulnerable children.

“Our research recognizes some important areas where children are most vulnerable to climate change,” said Dr. Lewis Weeda, who led the study. “The development of public health policies to counter these climate-related diseases, alongside efforts to reduce anthropogenic climate change, must be addressed if we are to protect current and future children.”

UN Sustainable Development Goals 

The research makes it clear: we absolutely need to put the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the top of our list if we want to protect children from the adverse health effects of climate change. 

These goals, created by the UN, were designed to make the world a better place by 2030, a world without poverty that is filled with peace and good things for everyone. 

To make this big dream come true, they created a plan with 17 connected goals that tackle the hardest problems everyone faces.

Some of the SDGs include:

  • Zero Hunger: Ending hunger, achieving food security, and promoting sustainable agriculture are crucial because climate change disrupts food production and availability, directly impacting children’s nutrition and health.
  • Good Health and Well-being: Guaranteeing healthy lives and promoting well-being for all ages is essential, as research confirms the detrimental effects of climate change on children’s health, including increased respiratory illnesses, higher mortality rates, and more hospitalizations.
  • Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensuring access to clean water and sustainable sanitation for all is paramount for preventing diseases worsened by climate change.
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth: Sustainable, inclusive economic growth, full employment, and decent work for all are key to providing the infrastructure and healthcare services needed to mitigate the impacts of climate change on children.
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities: Building inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements is crucial. Urban planning and infrastructure development that consider climate change impacts can protect children in urban areas.
  • Responsible Consumption and Production: Achieving sustainable consumption and production patterns is vital. This highlights the need to reduce the environmental footprint of human activities that contribute to climate change.
  • Climate Action: Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts is essential. This directly addresses the need to protect vulnerable populations, including children, from the effects of climate change.

Critical new insights on children and climate change

“We identified many direct links between climate change and child health, the strongest of which was a 60% increased risk on average of preterm birth from exposure to temperature extremes. Respiratory diseases, mortality, and morbidity, among others, were also made worse by climate change,” noted Professor Bradshaw.

“The effects of different air pollutants on children’s health outcomes were smaller compared to temperature effects, but most pollutants still had an effect of some type, so the news is concerning. The children’s health issues we identified depend on weather extremes – cold extremes give rise to respiratory diseases, while drought and extreme rainfall can result in stunted growth for a population.”

Broader implications of climate change’s impact on children

The study emphasizes the urgent need to understand the far-reaching effects of climate change on children’s health. It seeks to measure the extent of this impact, pinpoint areas most vulnerable to climate-related illnesses, and establish a framework for identifying risks specific to different populations. 

“Given that climate influences childhood disease, social and financial costs will continue to rise as climate change progresses, placing increasing pressure on families and health services. For example, asthma has been estimated to cost as much as US$1.5 billion due to a single fire season in the future, while another study estimated the costs of a single case of childhood asthma at up to US$23,573 in the coming years,” said Professor Bradshaw.

The analysis forms a crucial step in tackling this ecological and health crisis. By providing evidence-based insights, it paves the way for effective interventions and policies to safeguard child health amidst a changing climate.

The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.


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