Climate change, health and children

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Our health is dependent on a healthy planet and ecosystem [1, 2], and thus climate change is a global public health problem [1, 3, 4]. The longer we leave taking serious action, the harder it will be to address the damage done by the delay [5].

There have been numerous reports and papers discussing some of the potential impacts of climate change on human health [6-13]. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [13] as well as the direct impact of natural disasters linked to extreme weather (e.g., floods, storms and bushfires) likely health impacts include:

  • A greater likelihood of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heat waves and fires
  • Increased likelihood of under-nutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions
  • Risks from lost work capacity and reduced labour productivity in vulnerable populations
  • Increased risks from food- and water-borne diseases
  • Increased risks from vector-borne diseases (illnesses caused by pathogens and parasites in human populations).

In Australia, Addison [8] has identified a range of health impacts on remote communities including:

  • More deaths due to hot days,
  • Increased ambulance call-outs in hot periods (for non-traumatic, cardiovascular and respiratory ailments) and cold periods (mostly respiratory ailments)
  • More deaths, directly through injury and indirectly through more infectious diseases
  • Increased the risk of a range of diseases such as cholera and salmonella
  • Changing Ross River virus distribution
  • Increased diarrhoea with increasing humidity
  • Declines in the efficacy of medication.

While there could be a few positive effects, e.g., reduced capacity of disease-carrying vectors due to the hotter condition and potentially fewer winter deaths and disease events in temperate countries [8, 13], the impact on health is likely to be predominately negative and have the greatest impact, not only on “low-income countries where capacity to adapt is weakest, but also on the most vulnerable groups in developed countries” [7, p. 594].

Climate change and children

A new report from Doctors for the Environment Australia [14] has explored the impact of climate change on children. The following is their summary of the findings.

  1. Climate change has a direct impact on children’s mental and physical health. This will increase as temperatures rise and more frequent and severe extreme weather events such as bushfires and floods occur.
  2. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change because their behaviour exposes them to increased risks, their bodies respond differently to harms, and they are dependent on others.
  3. Research shows a link between excessive heat and childhood emergency department attendances for diseases such as asthma, fever, gastroenteritis, and electrolyte imbalances.
  4. There is evidence that exposure to extreme heat during pregnancy is related to premature birth.
  5. Climate change affects children’s mental health. Mental and emotional distress documented for children and adolescents following weather disasters include posttraumatic stress disorder and higher rates of sleep disturbance, aggressive behaviour, sadness, and substance abuse.
  6. Flooding can have comprehensive health effects on children. They include drowning and near-drowning, injury, hypothermia or electrocution. Dirty water that floods bring into homes, yards and playgrounds can also carry diarrhoeal disease, skin and soft tissue infections and a flu-like illness called leptospirosis. In the damp conditions following floods, mould spores proliferate to aggravate allergies and asthma attacks in children.
  7. Diseases carried by mosquitoes, including dengue, Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and Murray Valley Encephalitis are of concern, with dengue the most relevant to children.
  8. The current global increase in childhood asthma could be partly explained by increased exposure to allergens in the air driven by climate change.
  9. Climate change will increasingly threaten the fundamental foundations of children’s health – clean air, food, water and social and economic stability. Australia is not immune.
  10. Activities that contribute to climate change also directly worsen child health. The continued use of coal, gas and oil causes significant harm to children mainly via air pollution.
  11. It is very likely that there will be an increasing burden of disease in Australia requiring attention from general practitioners and hospitals due to injury or psychological trauma from extreme weather events, infections such as gastroenteritis and illness due to ozone and bushfire air pollution.
  12. Our health system infrastructure or resources can themselves be directly affected by climate change, potentially limiting their ability to provide care. In the heatwave prior to the Black Saturday bushfires, 25 per cent of all hospitals had problems with their air conditioning or cooling systems.
  13. To avoid widespread, severe and irreversible impacts associated with 4 degrees of global warming, urgent action must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Global climate change negotiations in Paris this December offer a crucial opportunity for Australia to make a strong commitment to protect our children. (pp. 4-5)

While it may be too late to prevent temperature increases of over 2°C (the target internationally agreed upon, yet now being widely questioned as a safe level), we still need to prevent climate change as much as possible. Unfortunately the lack of action to date means we will also need to focus more and more on adapting to the new conditions.

As Weston [2] argues, public health practitioners (and I would add family and community workers) need to become:

Critically informed about what the science is telling us about climate change and the biosphere’s health and to imagine what the necessary radical change will mean for society. (p. 105)

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What are social models of health?
  2. The paradox of inconsequence
  3. Climate change: we need to clean up after ourselves
  4. Where is climate change in the Intergenerational report?
  5. Dear Future Generations: Sorry
  6. Blue Men: Message to Humanity

References

  1. Primozic, L., Greening Australia’s public health system: the role of public hospitals in responding to climate change. Journal of Law and Medicine, 2010. 17(5): p. 772-783.
  2. Weston, D., Public health and climate change. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2012. 36(2): p. 104-106.
  3. Blashki, G., Climate change and primary health care. Australian Family Physician, 2007. 36(12): p. 986-989.
  4. Australian Medical Association. Climate Change and Human Health. 2008 14 June 2015]; Available from: https://ama.com.au/position-statement/climate-change-and-human-health-2004-revised-2008.
  5. Ritchie, J., Wrestling with ‘doubt-sayers’: A first step in leading community-wide climate change action for better health. Health Promotion Journal of Australia: Official Journal of Australian Association of Health Promotion Professionals, 2011. 22(Special Issue): p. S46-S47.
  6. McMichael, A.J., R.E. Woodruff, and S. Hales, Climate change and human health: present and future risks. The Lancet, 2006. 367(9513): p. 859-869.
  7. Haines, A., et al., Climate change and human health: Impacts, vulnerability and public health. Public Health, 2006. 120(7): p. 585-596.
  8. Addison, J., Impact of climate change on health and wellbeing in remote Australian communities: a review of literature and scoping of adaptation options, in Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation Working Paper CW014. 2013, Ninti One: Alice Springs.
  9. Australian Academy of Science, Climate change challenges to health: Risks and opportunities. 2015, Canberra: Australian Academy of Science.
  10. Costello, A., et al., Managing the health effects of climate change. The Lancet, 2009. 373(9676): p. 1693-1733.
  11. Spickett, J., H. Brown, and D. Katscherian, Health impacts of climate change: Adaptation strategies for Western Australia. 2008, Perth: Western Australia Department of Health.
  12. Thomas, P. and T. Capon, Climate change and health: impacts and adaptation. Issues (South Melbourne), 2011(94): p. 22-25.
  13. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Forrest, S. and D. Shearman, No time for games: Children’s health and climate change. 2015, College Park, South Australia: Doctors for the Environment Australia.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Environmental sustainability, Families & parenting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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