Think of the children

Climate change debate could gain traction with new focus on effects to kids’ health

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It was originally published online in Environmental Health News at

Fossil fuels represent a two-pronged attack on the health of children, a leading health scientist has warned. To foster health and well-being in future generations, society needs to dramatically decrease dependence on dirty energy.

In a commentary released last week summarizing the key science around fossil fuels and children’s health, Frederica Perera, a professor and researcher at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, argues the science clearly shows that both toxic air emission and climate change as a result of fossil fuel emissions pose grave dangers to children.

The benefits to children’s health and future economy from a reduction in fossil fuel use are enormous—$230 billion per year, according to researchers—and must factor into any policy arguments.

And beyond the scientific and economic arguments for reducing the burning of fossil fuels, there is a “strong moral imperative to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Perera wrote in the commentary published today in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Debate over energy use and regulation, she said in an interview, must “look at the full cost” of continued reliance on fossil fuels.

“We must include health costs,” she said. “As a nation we need to convince policymakers to think in an integrated way when it comes to climate change, public health, energy and the environment.”

Burning fossil fuels—coal, natural gas and oil—releases a toxic mix of compounds, including particulate matter, mercury, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Exposure to such pollutants, both as a fetus and during early childhood, has been associated with a many health problems in kids: low birth weights, preterm births, asthma, reduced IQs, depression and anxiety to name a few.

“A lot of it is from inflammation, a process our body just doesn’t like,” said Lori Byron, a pediatrician based in Hardin, Mont., and member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit advocating for policies to address climate change. “The list [of health effects] just keeps growing.”

Those same fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gases, which drive global climate change. Global warming is projected to increase heat, droughts and storm intensity in many regions, which can lead to food insecurity for kids, bolstered bug-driven diseases such as the Zika virus, and heat-related illness.

Also, as droughts and extreme heat feed social and political instability, there are the mental health effects on children forced to migrate, often from one poor country to another.

“We’ve been focused too much on polar bears and ice caps, not what impacts people’s daily lives,” said Michael Green, chief executive officer at the Center for Environmental Health.

Children, with brains and bodies still developing, are more sensitive and vulnerable to all of these problems.

“The children I worry about most are those kids in the worst situations—already poor, living in coastal cities, already dealing with marginal health and maybe dealing with other pollutants, like lead from water,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard and a pediatrician.

“Climate change is amplifying all of those effects, from food security, to displacement of families, to mobilization of pollutants in soil,” he said.

There are other “synergistic” effects between climate change and air toxics as well, Perera said, such as worsening ground-level ozone, which is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds interact. Warmer temperatures hasten the formation. “Greater concentrations of ozone at ground level greatly exacerbates asthma in children,” she said.

“There’s also cumulative impacts on children and babies in utero of having exposure to air toxics, and associated effects on birth outcomes and health and development, and then some are also getting insults, stresses from climate change—malnutrition, excess disease, more pollution, and more heat related disorders,” she said.

The impacts can last a lifetime. “The harm may be experienced in the first months or years, but it plays out over the entire life,” Perera said. “Respiratory illness is a risk factor for COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] in adulthood. ADHD, reduced IQ, autism, these don’t just disappear, but persist and affect function, well-being and the ability to contribute to society.”

The price tag to all this? Coal plants alone cost the U.S. an estimated $100 billion a year due to health impacts. And the World Health Organization estimated that climate change would cost the planet up to $4 billion a year by 2030 due to deaths and disease.

But those costs can be turned into savings. Increasing renewables such as wind and solar power to 36 percent of global energy consumption by 2030 could help avoid an estimated $230 billion of health costs, according to a 2015 study.

Perera sees progress: The global commitment to reduce greenhouse gases at the United Nations’ Paris climate talks last year is a prime example. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, stayed by the Supreme Court for now, could lead to an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion in climate- and health-related benefits in 2030, according to the Obama Administration.

Perera said that by framing energy policy as a children’s health issue, politicians might be able to cut through some of the impasse blocking fossil fuel reform.

“It’s a value we all share,” she said. “Every culture, every family, every person cares about vulnerable children and making sure they’re protected from harm.”