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The destructive impact of the climate crisis on children’s health

Our youngest are more susceptible to disasters, linked diseases, say U of T researchers
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SVEN/THE VARSITY
SVEN/THE VARSITY

The climate crisis threatens our existence in many different ways, and researchers have argued that children are most vulnerable to its destructive effects. Worldwide, children are estimated to bear 88 per cent of the burden of the diseases that have been linked to the climate crisis, and those in low-income families are affected the most, according to a University of Toronto-affiliated article published in Pediatrics.

The mechanisms for impact on children

The effects of the climate crisis on children’s health can be extremely serious. For example, early exposure to air pollution can lead to neurodevelopmental abnormalities and respiratory diseases. This is worsened by the fact that children breathe more air per kilogram of body weight than adults, and consequently ingest higher doses of pollutants.

During heat waves, which are becoming increasingly common, children are especially prone to heat exhaustion and heat strokes, as they don’t sweat as much as adults, and are less likely to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion. Infants have also been found to be much more vulnerable to heat-related deaths due to their immature thermoregulatory systems.

Moreover, experiencing environmental natural disasters related to the climate crisis, such as floods and forest fires, can be traumatic for children. This stress can take a serious toll on their mental and physical health, leading to conditions such as heart disease and a higher risk of depression. Floods have also been linked to outbreaks of infectious diarrheal diseases, and extreme weather can hinder access to health care.

The long-term effects of these changes on children

In a 2019 editorial in Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr. Zulfiqar Ahmed Bhutta, the director of research at the Centre for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children; Dr. Ashley Aimone, a past fellow of the Centre for Global Child Health; and Dr. Saeed Akhtar, the director of the Institute of Food Science & Nutrition at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Pakistan, explored what pediatricians can do to lessen the adverse impact that the climate crisis can have on children.

In an interview with The Varsity, Bhutta explained that one of the lesser-discussed consequences of the climate crisis that especially harms children is conflict for natural resources. This can be seen in a drought in Syria that escalated the ongoing war. Similarly, water sources are frequent targets in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

Bhutta also noted that the impact of the climate crisis on children’s health is much more pronounced because some effects can actually be lifelong.

“We know now that very early exposure to air pollution in children not only can lead to a propensity to develop respiratory illnesses like asthma or even [a] higher risk of developing pneumonia,” he said, “but it could also impact long-term outcomes in terms of the risk of chronic obstructive respiratory diseases and things that can influence their health well into adult life.”

How pediatricians can prepare for the climate crisis

According to Bhutta, there are three main ways in which pediatricians can help alleviate the impact of the climate crisis on children’s health. The first is by modelling environmentally conscious behaviours and being mindful of their consumption. The second is to advocate for more research into the climate crisis’ effects on children’s health, and the third is to educate the public and work with governments to implement policies that will combat the climate crisis — “translating research to practice,” as worded in the editorial.

Bhutta said that regarding Canadian policy specifically, the implementation of public health policies to reduce the health effects of the climate crisis ultimately depend on the policies that impact climate change directly.

Bhutta also noted that the actions we can take in Canada are applicable to the rest of the world — such as taking into consideration the potential environmental impacts of “everything that we do” in terms of the use of public land. Bhutta added that should Canada decide to “walk the talk,” we could set an example for other countries to follow.