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Children's Health Protection

Climate Change and the Health of Children

Climate change is already affecting glacier melting, sea level rise, the range and distribution of plants and animals, tree blooming times, the length of growing seasons, freezing and thawing of rivers and lakes, and the extent of the permafrost. Climate change may also affect the health of children. Looking at several climate-related phenomena – extreme weather, air pollution, infectious diseases, and heat – provides a starting point for exploring how the changing climate may affect children’s health. The emphasis here is on possible effects to children in the United States, but some global perspectives are provided as well. Links are provided throughout to provide more background on technical environmental and health issues.

Choose from the topics below to learn more:

A Few Things to Remember

  • Climate change is global; but its effects on the physical environment will be experienced in communities locally, with varying intensity.
  • Climate change potentially places all people at risk, but its health effects will vary greatly among individuals and communities, just as all health varies with age, geography, income, health care availability and quality, nutrition, occupation, genetics and environment. In general, people and communities with higher income will suffer less than those in poor areas.
  • Children are different from adults in how they interact with their environment and how their health may be affected by these interactions. Children’s body systems are still developing, some through the second decade of life. Children eat more, drink more and breathe more than adults in proportion to their body weight, therefore their food, water and air must be clean enough to enable them to thrive. Children play and learn by crawling; they put their hands in their mouths; and they often play vigorously outdoors – these behaviors increase exposures to environmental contaminants.
  • While the effects of climate change may pose unique and increased risks to children’s health, these risks can be reduced through preparation, planning, and surveillance by our public health agencies at federal, state and local levels.
  • Outreach and education efforts to inform the public about these health effects may increase our societal and individual interest in and commitment to greenhouse gas reduction. This Web page links to over 25 easy steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution, and even save money.

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Extreme Weather and Coastal Zone Issues

Climate change may alter the frequency, timing, intensity and duration of extreme weather events. In the United States, despite our temperate climate and developed country status, these events are expected to be disruptive and may affect human health outcomes. Extreme weather includes heat waves, tropical storms and hurricanes, floods and droughts. Globally and historically, data show that floods are the most frequent weather-related disaster, representing 43% of all disasters between 1993 and 2001.

Globally, 66.5 million children were affected by weather-related disasters every year between 1990 and 2000. Save the Children UK estimates that in the next decade, up to 175 million children are likely to be affected every year by the kinds of natural disasters brought about by climate change.

People living in coastal areas may experience stronger storms and the effects of sea level rise. In the United States, over half the population lives in a coastal county. A coastal county is defined as a county having at least 15 percent of its land area draining to the coast. Sea level rise may be accompanied by flooding, storm surges, and saltwater intrusion. There are, in addition, many other coastal zone issues.

Direct health consequences of extreme weather events may include injury and death. Indirect effects include increases in infectious disease, post traumatic mental health and behavior problems. Some studies show that children experience more intense mental and emotional stress than adults during and after these disasters. Children are also more vulnerable than adults in disaster situations because they rely on others to care for them. They need specialized medical care during and after disasters because of their size and their differences in physiology and psychology.

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Air Pollution

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects declining air quality in cities. Climate change is expected to lead to increases in regional ozone pollution. Further, fine particulate matter emissions from forest fires are increasing due to climate change and can contribute to acute and chronic illnesses of the respiratory system, particularly in children. In North America wildfires are increasing and are likely to intensify in a warmer future.

Children are especially vulnerable to air pollutants because their lungs are developing and growing, they breathe at a higher rate than adults, and they spend more time playing outdoors, often being very physically active. Childhood exposure to ozone and particulate matter causes well-documented health effects. In 2005, approximately 55 percent of children in the United States lived in counties in which the eight-hour ozone standard was exceeded on at least one day per year. Twenty-five percent of children lived in counties that exceeded the annual fine particulate matter standard.

Ozone exposure may lead to a number of adverse health effects in children, such as shortness of breath, chest pain when inhaling deeply, wheezing and coughing, temporary decreases in lung function, and lower respiratory tract infections.

Childhood exposure to particulate matter has been associated with respiratory symptoms, decreased lung function, exacerbation of asthma, and development of chronic bronchitis. Rates of preterm births, low birth weight, and infant mortality are increased in communities with high particulate levels. Exposure to particulate matter is also associated with increased school absences, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Particulate pollutants are released during wildfires. The Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer advice on the related acute and chronic children’s health effects Exit Disclaimer.

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Water, Food, and Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases

Climate change may affect the growth, survival, transmission, and virulence of the disease-causing organisms related to water and food-borne illness. Storms and flooding may result in crop contamination and drinking water contamination that leads to illness. Vector-borne infections are also affected by climate change as the hosts (rodents, etc) and pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites) are sensitive to the climate variables, including temperature, humidity, and rainfall.

Water and food-borne illnesses increase when outdoor temperature increases. Gastroenteritis -- inflammation of the stomach and the intestines -- is the primary disease associated with exposure to contaminated food and water. While gastroenteritis may be uncomfortable for a healthy adult, it can be debilitating and even fatal for young children.

Globally, infectious diarrhea is the second-leading cause of death in young children, with 1.62 million under age 5 dying annually, mostly due to contaminated water exposure. In the United States, death from water-borne infections is unlikely, but an increase in the number of children who get sick is possible.

Malaria causes 500 million illnesses annually and more than 1 million deaths, mostly among children and pregnant women in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America. Around 40% of the world's population currently lives in malaria-endemic areas. Climate change may expand the range, and warmer temperatures will cause greater exposure. Global warming may have already exacerbated malaria outbreaks in North America, given that locally transmitted malaria has occurred in Texas, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, and New York and Toronto. An increase in malaria-carrying mosquitoes will affect young children more than adults because children lack immunity to malaria and because they play outside, where mosquitoes are found.

Climate change will increase the geographical distribution of Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks. Children are especially vulnerable to tick bites because they tend to play outside and they play close to the ground. Children that are five to ten years old get Lyme disease more often than older children and adults. Lyme disease is rarely fatal, but it does have the potential to cause long-term illness.

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Climate change is projected to cause extreme heat and heat waves in the United States. Heat waves are defined as three consecutive days of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They are likely to increase in intensity, frequency and duration as the climate changes. These temperature increases will not be the same around the globe, but they are projected to be greatest in North America, Europe, and Central Asia.

Heat waves can cause lower crop yields, wildfires, power outages, increased smog, and mortality. During 1999-2003, a total of 3,442 deaths resulting from exposure to extreme heat were reported in the United States. In cities, urban heat islands increase heat-related mortality, as the air temperatures rise due to the large amount of dark and paved surfaces and the lack of vegetation and trees.

Children have a smaller body mass to surface area ratio than adults, making them more vulnerable to heat-related morbidity and mortality. Infants and very young children are at increased risk from heat-related deaths compared to older children and young adults. Heat stroke and exhaustion are likely in children who play outside, and regular reports of infants dying when left in unattended vehicles suggest a low awareness of the dangers of heat events.

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The effects of climate change on children’s health were addressed in 1997 by Environment Leaders of the Group of Eight. In 2005, the Children’ s Health Protection Advisory Committee urged EPA to take specific actions regarding children’s environmental health and climate change (PDF) (12 pp, 612K). Learn what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint by visiting the EPA Climate Change Web site and the EPA ENERGY STAR Web site.

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Other Links

  • Climate Change & Children’s Health Brochure (PDF) (8 pp, 343K)
  • Climate Change and Children: A Human Security Challenge, a 2008 Policy Review Paper by UNICEF Innocenti Centre Exit Disclaimer
  • 1997 Declaration of the Environment Leaders of the Eight on Children's Environmental Health
  • CHPAC Letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson Regarding Children’s Environmental Health and Climate Change (PDF) (12 pp, 612K)
  • Response from Stephen Johnson to CHPAC Regarding Children’s Environmental Health and Climate Change (PDF) (1 pg, 115K)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Global Climate Change and Children’s Health Exit Disclaimer
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Technical Report on Global Climate Change and Children’s Health (PDF) Exit Disclaimer (10 pp, 290K)
  • Health Risks of Wildfires for Children—Acute Phase (PDF) Exit Disclaimer (6 pp, 293K)
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Exit Disclaimer
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control National Center for Environmental Health
  • U.S. Climate Change Science Program
  • Climate Change Collection in the Encyclopedia of Earth Exit Disclaimer
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