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The Face Of Climate Change: Our Children's Health

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As greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet, scientists predict that we will see alterations in many of the foundations of human society, from our food supply to global security concerns. Our health is already suffering from the effects of climate change, and those who bear the brunt of the suffering are children.

Will children be the face of the global impact of climate change? Will their health be the collateral damage of our fossil fuel civilization?

Researchers have estimated that in 2000, climate change was already responsible for more than 150,000 deaths per year, with 88 percent of those among children. This is an estimate for what was happening 13 years ago. And we keep pumping carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Some of the documented health effects (i.e., happening now) of climate change on children include:

  • Change in the ranges of malaria and Dengue
  • Increases in diarrheal disease, respiratory disease, injury and death from extreme weather events
  • Increases in poverty, food insecurity and instability, and resulting malnutrition and starvation
  • Heat-related health effects, including diminished school performance, pregnancy complications, and renal effects

Scientists predict climate change will continue to disproportionately harm children's health in the future:

Infectious disease: leading cause of childhood death. Despite some recent improvements in global child health, childhood mortality remains stunningly high worldwide -- 8 million children under the age of 5 perish each year, and most of them die from infectious diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. Global warming is predicted to increase the spread of at least two of these infectious killers -- indeed, many scientists think such effects are already happening.

  • Mosquito-borne diseases. Malaria transmission may increase in a warming world as mosquitoes survive at higher latitudes, in broader regions, and for longer seasons. The disease hits children the hardest. Globally, malaria is the third biggest killer of children, affecting mostly children in Africa. Mosquitoes also transmit Dengue fever, West Nile virus, and other dangerous viruses. As temperature rises, Dengue virus replication increases inside the mosquito. This means that a warming climate could increase the ability of mosquitoes to transmit Dengue fever.
  • The incidence of water-related diseases such as cholera and cryptosporidiosis is closely related to water conditions and climate. In times of drought, water scarcity may force families to use contaminated water sources for drinking, cooking, and bathing, leading to increases in water-borne disease. In times of heavy rains and floods, sewer lines may be overwhelmed, leading to contamination of drinking water supplies. Climate change is predicted to increase both droughts and floods, depending on the region. With these conditions we will also see more water-borne diseases. Again, children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of diarrheal disease. Worldwide, diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death among children younger than 5; it is also a leading cause of malnutrition among children.

Ground level ozone harms little lungs. In a warming world, respiratory disease will increase. Children will experience more irritated eyes, throats, and lungs. More asthma attacks. Impaired lung development. Increased respiratory illnesses. New cases of asthma. That's because of predicted increases in the production of ground-level ozone, a powerful respiratory irritant. Ground-level ozone will be on the rise globally as temperatures increase, due to the chemical process that creates ozone in our atmosphere. Increased pollen counts and smoke from wildfires -- both of which are predicted to rise in a warming world - will also contribute to ozone formation. Ozone is a lung irritant for all breathers, but children are especially vulnerable to its health effects.

Gee, it's hot in here. As global temperatures rise, heat waves will be stronger and last longer. Data from NASA shows that's already happening. Heat waves can cause heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and they also make other illnesses worse. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to heat because their bodies are not as good at regulating internal temperatures. Heat makes them sicker, sooner, than otherwise healthy adults.

Health impacts from climate change are not in some far off future. They are happening now. Our children are already collateral damage, and will continue to suffer the health consequences -- until we limit carbon emissions from power plants, end fossil fuel subsidies, and transition to an alternative energy economy. Join us!

Photo: Shutterstock

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