AUSTIN, Texas – Heat waves are getting hotter and more frequent due to rising air pollution levels, putting children’s health at risk, wide-ranging new report find.
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, especially children. It examines the relationship between fossil fuel emissions and various impacts of climate change — including extreme weather events; Forest 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, saw record high temperatures in the United States that affected more than 100 million people and touched places from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, the Southwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.
In Texas, Austin already experienced an eight-day streak of temperatures above the 100-degree mark in June, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
These patterns are an important reality to note, said Frederica Perera, lead author of the paper. “My concern is that the threats are increasing as the temperature rises,” Perera, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told KHN. “Temperatures are rising because greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, and this is a major health concern for everyone – but especially the most vulnerable.”
Children fit into this category, write Perera and her co-author, Dr. Kari Nadeau, because their ability to regulate their 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 are dependent on parental care, sometimes their needs are neglected,” she said.
The authors note that heat-related illness is a “leading and increasing cause of death and illness among student athletes” in the US. They also cite studies that suggest “climate change-related heat” is affecting children and adolescents’ mental health, as well as their ability to learn.
The review article points to previous research that links exposure to heat waves in utero with “an increased risk of preterm birth or low birth weight; hyperthermia and death in infants; and heat stress, kidney disease and other diseases” among children.
“Pregnancy is very physiologically demanding in its own right, and 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 any of the studies. “And the fetus can also experience heat stress, which can lead to adverse birth outcomes.”
And those heat-related risks are greater for “low-income communities and communities of color,” the authors of the new paper write.
Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased sharply over the past 70 years, according to the article. “Modelling shows that some heat waves are extremely unlikely to occur in the absence of climate change,” it said.
The authors outline solutions they describe as “climate and environmental strategies” that “must also be seen as mainstream public health policy”. In addition to wide-ranging efforts to mitigate fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions, they proposed various ways to protect children—steps they call “adaptation measures”—that include 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, the Austin-based study highlighted why this step might make sense.
Researchers tracked the physical activity levels and location of students aged 8 to 10 during recess at three elementary schools in 2019. They compared children’s recess activity over two weeks in September, the hottest full month of the school year. , with the cooler week in November. “We wanted to understand the impact of outdoor temperatures on children’s schoolyard play,” said Kevin Lanza, the study’s lead researcher, to inform the design of “future school-based physical activity interventions in the face of climate change.”
During hotter periods, he said, “children engage in less physical activity and seek shade.”
As temperatures continue to rise, he said, schools need to be flexible to ensure students get the daily exercise they need. “Schools should consider adding shade, either by planting trees or installing man-made structures that cover spaces designated for physical activity,” said Lanza, an assistant professor in the UTHealth School of Public Health. He also noted that school policies could be updated so that recess is scheduled during the cooler hours of the day and moved inside during periods of extreme heat.
But the common need to protect children from scorching weather demands action beyond such steps, Perera said, and more climate and clean air policies must be put in place.
“Governments have a responsibility to protect the population and especially the most vulnerable, which includes especially children,” Perera said. “We need to act immediately because we are moving in the wrong direction.