AUSTIN, Texas – Heat waves are getting hotter and more frequent due to rising air pollution levels, putting at risk the health of children, a wide range of new report gene.
A June 15 article in the New England Journal of Medicine reviews current research to take a comprehensive inventory of how air pollution and climate change interact to adversely affect human health, particularly that of children. It examined the link between fossil fuel emissions and a range of climate change consequences – including extreme weather events; wild fires; vector-borne diseases such as malaria, Zika and Lyme disease; and heat waves, a topic at the forefront of many people’s minds.
This month, for example, record high temperatures have been reported across the United States, affecting more than 100 million people and affecting locations from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, the Southwest, the mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.
In Texas, Austin has already experienced an eight-day streak of temperatures above 100 degrees in June, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
These patterns are an important reality to note, said Frederica Perera, the paper’s lead author. “My concern is that the threats are increasing as the temperature rises,” KHN Perera, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told KHN. “Temperatures are rising because greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and this is a major health concern for everyone – but especially for the most vulnerable.”
Children fit into this category, writes Perera and her co-author, Dr. Kari Nadeau, because their ability to regulate temperature, known as thermoregulation, is not fully developed.
They are also more susceptible to heat-related stress because they are smaller and need to drink and eat more often to stay healthy, Perera said. But because “young children depend on their parents to provide for them, sometimes their needs are ignored,” she said.
The authors noted that heat-related illness is “a leading and growing cause of death and illness among student athletes” in the US. children and adolescents and their ability to learn.
The review article noted previous research linking in utero exposure to heat waves with “increased risk of preterm birth or low birth weight; hyperthermia and death in infants; and heat stress, kidney disease and other diseases” in children.
“Being pregnant is very physiologically demanding in itself, and then the heat puts additional stress on a pregnant woman,” said Dr. Robert Dubrow, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, who was not affiliated with either study. “And the fetus can experience heat stress as well, which can result in adverse birth outcomes.”
And these heat-related risks are greatest for “low-income communities and communities of color,” the authors of the new article write.
Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased significantly in the past 70 years, according to the article. “Modelling shows that some heat waves would be extremely unlikely to occur in the absence of climate change,” he says.
The authors outline solutions they describe as “climate and environmental strategies” that “must also be seen as essential public health policy.” Beyond major efforts to mitigate fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions, they offered various ways to protect children—steps they call “adaptation measures”—which included providing clean water to children and families facing drought or water pollution and creating shaded areas where children play, live and go to school.
Separately, Austin-based research highlighted why this step might make sense.
Researchers tracked the physical activity levels and whereabouts of students aged 8 to 10 during recess at three elementary schools in 2019. They compared children’s recess activity during two weeks in September, the hottest full month of the school year, with a cooler week in November. . “We wanted to understand the impact of outdoor temperatures on children’s play in schoolyard environments,” said Kevin Lanza, the study’s principal investigator, to inform the design of “future school-based physical activity interventions in the face of climate change.” “.
During the hottest periods, he said, “children engaged in less physical activity and sought shade.”
As temperatures continue to rise, he said, schools must be flexible to make sure students get the daily exercise they need. “Schools should consider adding shade, either by planting trees or installing artificial structures, that cover spaces intended for physical activity,” said Lanza, an assistant professor in UTHealth’s School of Public Health. He also noted that school policies could be updated so that recess is scheduled during cooler times of the day and moved indoors during periods of extreme heat.
But the overall need to protect children from scorching weather patterns requires action beyond such steps, Perera said, and more climate and clean air policies must be enacted.
“Governments have a responsibility to protect the population and especially the most vulnerable, which includes especially children,” said Perera. “Action must be taken immediately because we are going absolutely in the wrong direction.”