AUSTIN, Texas – Heatwaves are getting hotter and more frequent due to rising rates of air pollution, putting children’s health at risk, a new wide-ranging report finds.
A June 15 article in the New England Journal of Medicine examines current research to make a large inventory of how air pollution and climate change interact to adversely affect people’s health, particularly that of children. It examined the link between fossil fuel emissions and a variety of consequences 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, there were record temperatures in the United States, affecting more than 100 million people and touching 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 models are an important reality to note, said Frederica Perera, the lead author of the article. “My concern is that the threats increase as the temperature rises,” she told KHN Perera, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Temperatures are rising because greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and this is a major health concern for everyone, but especially for the most vulnerable.”
Babies fall into this category, wrote 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 frequently to stay healthy, Perera said. But because “young children depend on their parents to provide, their needs are sometimes 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 United States. In addition, they cited studies suggesting that “heat associated with climate change” has an impact on children’s and adolescents’ mental health, as well as their learning ability.
The review article pointed to previous research associating in utero exposure to heat waves with “increased risks of preterm birth or low birth weight; hyperthermia and death among infants; and heat stress, kidney disease, and other illnesses. “Among children.
“Being pregnant is inherently very physiologically demanding, and therefore the heat puts additional stress on a pregnant woman,” said Dr. Robert Dubrow, a professor of epidemiology at Yale’s School of Public Health who has not been associated with. neither study. “And the fetus can also experience heat stress, which could lead to adverse birth outcomes.”
And these heat-related risks are overall greater for “low-income communities and communities of color,” the authors of the new paper wrote.
Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased dramatically over the past 70 years, according to the article. “The modeling indicates that some heat waves would be extraordinarily unlikely in the absence of climate change,” he says.
The authors briefly outline solutions which they describe as “climate and environmental strategies” that “should also be seen as essential public health policies”. Beyond general 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 contamination and the creation of shaded areas where children play, live and go to school.
Separately, Austin-based research has highlighted why this step could be significant.
Researchers tracked the physical activity levels and location of 8 to 10-year-old students during recess at three elementary schools in 2019. They compared children’s recess activity during the two weeks of September, the hottest month. of the school year, with a cooler week than November. “We wanted to understand the impact of outdoor temperatures on children’s play in schoolyard environments,” said Kevin Lanza, lead researcher of the study, to inform the design of “future school interventions for physical activity in the face of climate change. “.
During the warmer periods, he said, “the children did less physical activity and sought shade.”
As temperatures continue to rise, he said, schools need to be flexible in making sure students get the daily exercise they need. “Schools should consider adding shade by planting trees or installing artificial structures that cover spaces for physical activity,” said Lanza, assistant professor at UTHealth’s School of Public Health. She also noted that school policies could be updated so that breaks are scheduled during the cooler hours of the day and moved indoors during periods of extreme heat.
But the general need to protect children from scorching weather requires action beyond those measures, Perera said, and more climate and clean air policies need to be enacted.
“Governments have a responsibility to protect the population and especially the most vulnerable people, especially children,” said Perera. “We must act immediately because we are going absolutely in the wrong direction.”
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