Environmental health and climate change are topics of much discussion, yet the harm being done to our youngest seems to be overshadowed. Why is this?
The young are bearing the brunt of climate change and air pollution. For years, much of the focus with respect to health consequences was on the toll in excess adult deaths. Certainly, those numbers are shocking: seven million per year globally, and 60,000 in the US every year. But recently, scientists (myself included), have documented the many harms to children’s mental as well as physical health, and cited the need to act urgently to protect this most vulnerable group.
We have shown that the special susceptibility of the fetus, infant and child is due to many biological and behavioral factors all occurring at the same time. These factors include rapid growth, complex developmental programming, immaturity of detoxification and immune defense systems, limited ability to regulate body temperature during periods of severe heat, greater nutritional needs leading to a greater impact of drought and food insecurity and dependence on adult caretakers. Any one of these susceptibility factors would raise the risk from toxic exposures and stressors, but their combination greatly magnifies the harm.
And some groups will be disproportionately affected.
All children are vulnerable; but the least socioeconomically advantaged are hurt “first and worst”. This is true globally and in rich countries like the US where children in communities of color and low income have disproportionately greater exposure to air pollution as well as to severe heat and extreme weather events.
In the US, discriminatory policies like redlining created urban heat islands characterized by heat-trapping asphalt and few trees. And severe storms, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, have disproportionately affected Black and low-income communities.