Comprehensive coverage

How does the climate crisis affect children's health?

A comprehensive report that examined the effects of climate change on human health marks children's health as particularly vulnerable, and emphasizes the need for global mobilization to deal with the crisis in order to give a better future to future generations

Neta Nissim, Zveta - news agency for science and the environment

The climate crisis affects children first of all. Illustration: shutterstock
The climate crisis affects children first of all. Illustration: shutterstock

"It does not make sense. I'm not supposed to be here. I should be at school now, on the other side of the ocean. And you still come to us, the young people, to ask for hope. how dare you You stole my dreams and my childhood with your empty words." Climate activist Greta Thunberg's words at the climate conference in New York have already become part of the annals of the global fight against climate change. Thunberg herself. Only 16 years old, she became a symbol of a new generation born into a world that is already affected by climate change.

"Climate change" is often seen as a distant subject from the daily lives of most people, and as something that can be put in the back of the head and hoped to pass by itself. But our sense of well-being in the environment we live in, the stability of local communities, health systems and governments - all depend on the effects of climate change. Already in these days, severe storms, flooding events, extreme heat waves and prolonged droughts, huge fires, infectious diseases are emerging and there is a danger to the food security of many people on the planet.

A recent report published in the medical journal The Lancet conducted an extensive review of the effects of climate change on human health. One of the significant findings in the report is that children are much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change occurring now and those expected in the future.

Air pollution, diseases and extreme heat

The findings in the report were collected from 35 leading academic institutions and UN agencies from around the world. In order to produce high-quality and diverse data, a cross-border and cross-disciplinary collaboration was conducted between climate experts, ecologists, public health experts and doctors, as well as mathematicians, engineers, food and transportation experts, economists and government and society researchers.

The report found that a situation of "business as usual" and unlimited greenhouse gas emissions will result in a significant worsening of the general health picture of the human population, especially among children. The harm to children is expected to be caused by phenomena such as worsening air pollution, because climate change is causing a serious deterioration in air quality in large parts of the world, and an increase in the frequency of a phenomenon called "frozen atmosphere" (stagnant air), which can cause tiny breathable particles such as soot, dust, and nitrogen and sulfur oxides And the ozone gas does not disperse well and therefore penetrates the respiratory system in high concentrations. According to the study, by the end of the 21st century this atmospheric phenomenon is expected to prevail in large parts of the world for 40 days a year.

The report also predicts the spread of infectious diseases in new areas, because the combination of heat and humidity is a catalyst for the rapid reproduction of bacteria and also of carriers such as mosquitoes, which transmit different types of viruses (malaria, Zika, dengue fever, etc.).

Another phenomenon is extreme heat events as there have been in recent years around the world and especially in the months of June-July 2019 in Europe, when many heat records were broken since the beginning of the measurements. Heat waves cause many deaths mainly in populations such as very old people and babies. In addition to all of this, food security is also expected to be undermined in light of the growing world population and the shrinking of the areas that allow food to be grown due to conditions that will make some of today's agricultural areas unfit for agricultural cultivation. Agriculture is the most sensitive sector to climatic conditions and global climate change produces hotter and much more extreme weather that leads to a change in the nature of the soil, the resistance of varieties to pests and diseases and makes it even more difficult to grow food.

Children are more vulnerable than adults

According to the researchers, children are especially vulnerable to such situations because of their physiology: since in children the heart beats faster and the breathing rate is higher than in adults, they absorb more air pollutants into their bodies in relation to their body weight, an effect that is amplified due to their small body size. Also, children are at high risk also because they spend more time in the outdoor environment than adults. The climate changes, extreme heat and air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels threaten the health of children starting from the womb stage, and from there the damage is only expected to accumulate and worsen.

According to Prof. Hagai Levin, head of the health and environment program at the School of Public Health at the Hebrew University, "The focus on children is an important trend. We know that there are other vulnerable populations in the context of climate change, such as the elderly for example, but conceptually, in the current way of life we ​​are 'sacrificing' children's lives, not only in the future but also in the present."

Levin adds that "the period of our initial development as humans is critical, and small disruptions, such as exposure to chemicals and pollutants in the air and exposure to high temperatures during pregnancy, can cause various problems and injuries." He also notes that "it is also important to remember that everything is relative - the degree of risk varies between different groups in the population, times during pregnancy, males and females, and the lifestyle of the mother. Therefore, it is difficult for us to measure a real impact, but we are still constantly encountering evidence that climate change is harming our health."

The answer is multidisciplinary

According to the report, air pollution from human activity (indoor and outdoor pollution) was responsible for the premature death of seven million people worldwide in 2016 alone. In addition to the emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels, the report states that future generations will be increasingly exposed to particulate pollution as a result of fires, which occur more frequently as the global temperature rises. The high temperatures dry out the vegetation, which makes it easier to ignite, and the smoke emitted from these fires has negative health consequences. As a result of the recurrence of these fires and other extreme climate scenarios, young children are also forced to deal with mental problems, which they have never had to deal with before, and certainly not with the frequency and intensity that they have to deal with now. The report, and its focus on children, comes at a time when youth climate protests are attracting a lot of attention, including school strikes, thanks in large part to the actions of Greta Thunberg.

"Climate change itself challenges us and our bodies," concludes Levin. "There are studies that have found that fetuses exposed during pregnancy to a certain climate experience difficulty after birth in getting used to a different climate, so the body is not well adapted to the change." He further adds, "The important point is that the health system needs to prepare for current and future changes, research and monitor the effects of climate change, something we are not dealing with enough today. It is important to understand that thinking and acting on the subject must be multidisciplinary and does not only concern health, but must also refer to other fields such as geography, sociology, management and education. In addition, the collaborations could open up profitable opportunities for us, such as technological developments to deal with climate change."

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