A landmark article in a 2009 copy of The Lancet by the University College London Commission on Climate Change concluded that “Climate Change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
Six years later, the controversial topic continues to inflame both sides of the debate—some friends have turned into foes; there are even seasoned scientists who deny climate change exists; there are governments who lost elections as a result of ignoring the major public health impact of climate change, while other governments are accused of over-reacting when they make climate change a top priority.
Whatever values and beliefs two opposing sides may hold, there is no debate that we have seen more droughts, floods, hurricanes, a change in the ozone levels, intensifying pollution in some parts of the planet and the need for families with small children to relocate due to dramatic environmental shifts. The causes of these events can be debated, but there is no debate that it happened – there are skeptics who maintain this may have happened in the distant past and it is nothing new or concerning.
The objective question is simply this: how did these events impact children’s physical and mental health?
The answer is captured in a comprehensive review published in the November 2015 edition of Pediatrics (www.pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/136/5/e1468)
It has been said that children are not small adults. For example the impact of pesticides on the developing neurological system will not be the same as that of adults; children’s lungs are still developing and they breathe in more air per pound or kilogram of body weight than adults; children also have sensitive airways and their asthma is more easily triggered by both indoor and outdoor pollutants.
On October 1, 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthened the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone to 70 parts per billion based on extensive scientific evidence about ozone’s effects on the pulmonary health of children. The effect of smog on the still developing lungs of children is profound. (www3.eps.gov/airquality/ozonepollution/actions.html#current)
The impact of climate change on allergies such as hay fever induced by ragweed is a very fascinating new scientific development. The incidence of ragweed allergies continues to climb. It is speculated that the ragweed pollen season has lengthened due to the delay of first frost and the lengthening of frost-free seasons in higher latitudes. Ragweed pollen production increases in response to increased levels of CO2 and increased temperatures. Elevated pollen counts also put allergy-associated asthmatics at a higher risk of asthma attacks.
Scientists at the EPA see the need for ongoing monitoring of newer pesticides and its impact, not only on children, but also expecting mothers. Pregnancy remains a period of vulnerability for the growing fetus and definitive answers remain elusive—and controversial. The role of environmental toxins as contributors to the ever-increasing incidence of autism and ADHD is a hot-button issue.
Poor water quality and floods related to hurricanes and other major climate shifts contribute to more frequent diarrhea world-wide. Gastroenteritis events due to Salmonella, Campylobacter, E coli, Shigella, Cholera and Cryptosporidium increase when temperatures are higher. After Hurricane Katrina there was an increase in the number of foodborne illnesses.
A change in climate also impacts vectorborne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus. These infections are transmitted by mosquitoes. More humans die from mosquito-linked infections than sharks—yet shark attacks always generate magnificent media attention!
Extreme weather events between 2000 and 2009 were three times more frequent compared to similar events between 1980 and 1989. The scale of natural disasters has also increased. Some blame deforestation, environmental degradation and urbanization; they also anticipate that the number of children affected will climb from the current 66.5 million yearly to 175 million in the upcoming decade.
These events take a toll on children’s mental health—after hurricanes Katrina and Rita more than 5,000 children were separated from their families. Between 200,000 and 300,000 children were evacuated and relocated, temporarily or permanently. Children displaced by Hurricane Katrina experienced an average of three moves per child. As a result the incidence of post-traumatic- stress continues to linger to this day in some cases.
Food safety and food security are also impacted by these extreme weather events. Communities, who are already socioeconomically disadvantaged, are at a higher risk of resource scarcity and potentially increased violent conflicts motivated by the need to survive.
Transcending emotions and partisan politics will always be difficult. The EPA provides extensive scientific resources regarding air quality, climate change, pesticides, water quality; land waste, and sustainable practices. (See www2.epa.gov/children)
DR. NIEMAN IS A COMMUNITY PEDIATRICAN AND A CLINICAL ASSISTANT PROFFESOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY MEDICAL SCHOOL. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF “MOVING FORWARD”. DR. NIEMAN IS A BI-WEEKLY CONTRIBUTOR ON CTV CALGARY AND HOSTS A WEBSITE WWW.HEALTHYKIDS.CA