Today’s Pediatricians Are Taking a Stand for Our Children’s Health in a Climate-Changing World
We’ve all heard the phrase “Nothing is more important than a child’s health.” But as a mom unexpectedly navigating the pediatric medical system for the last six months to find successful treatment for my son’s illness, that time-worn adage has transmuted into a real-time preoccupation. At times like this, we turn to our trusted pediatricians to ensure we are doing everything possible to promote the health – and ultimately, to protect the very lives – of our most precious loved ones. Our children, in turn, rely upon their parents and families to do all they can to keep them as healthy as possible.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics, representing over 60,000 members, demonstrated that its commitment to children’s health must encompass the message that climate change is profoundly connected to the health and welfare of all children – both today, and in the future. At this week’s 2015 National Conference and Exhibition, the AAP released an updated policy statement and technical report on Global Climate Change and Child Health. Eight years beyond its original 2007 policy on climate change, and representing three years of committee work, the updated issuance provides even stronger evidence of how changing climate conditions affect the health of U.S. children and underscores that what is good for the climate is also good, and necessary, for the health of our children.
Lead author and pediatrician Dr. Samantha Ahdoot will bring her expertise on the topic to the upcoming APHA 2015 Annual Meeting, where she will present on the MomentUs sponsored panel session, “Beyond Climate Change and Public Health: A Look at How Other Sectors Play a Role in Addressing Climate Change and Health.” Dr. Ahdoot’s presentation will help launch a new Climate for Health partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics as we work together to engage, educate, and inspire more of America’s pediatricians, health professionals, and families to act upon the health threats posed by climate change. Our Climate for Health Leadership Circle will expand to include AAP’s associate executive director, Dr. Ramesh Sachdeva, who will bring the Academy’s unique and powerful focus on protecting children’s health to the collective work of advancing the health sector’s response to climate change.
As I shift now from the keyboard to my phone to set up an appointment with yet another pediatric specialist, I can appreciate how many parents at first blush might feel that an issue as seemingly distant as climate change has little to do with taking care of their sick child today. However, as Dr. Ahdoot makes clear in her post below, parents and families rely upon our nation’s pediatricians for guidance in critical times, and climate change is already showing up in the exam rooms of our nation’s pediatricians in critical ways. As climate change increasingly knocks upon the doctor’s office door, we are honored to be working with AAP to help their members become champions of the climate action needed to protect our children and promote healthier outcomes for future generations.
Why Do Pediatricians Care About Climate Change?
By Samantha Ahdoot, M D, FAAP
Pediatricians, children, and parents see the impact of climate change every day. Worsening heat waves and severe weather events, changing allergy seasons, and shifting infectious disease patterns affect many children directly. It can be hard to make sense of it all, let alone know what to do about it.
Because of their growing minds and bodies, children are uniquely vulnerable to changes in their environment. A changing climate has a wide range of effects on the plants, animals and natural systems on which children depend for their own health, safety and security. Here are some examples:
Heat-related illness. As temperatures increase and heat waves become longer and more severe, heat-related illness is expected to increase. Young infants and high school athletes, particularly football players, are at particularly elevated risk.
Air quality. Warmer summer temperatures can increase the concentration of ozone, or smog, in the air. Ozone is a strong lung irritant that causes asthma attacks, emergency department visits and hospitalizations. Wildfires, which are increasing due to climate change, produce toxic smoke that can travel for thousands of miles and cause respiratory illness. Pollen allergies can also be affected. Higher temperatures increase the length of the allergy season, particularly in Northern regions. Increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere may independently increase pollen production by ragweed, a common cause of seasonal allergies.
“Because of their growing minds and bodies, children are uniquely vulnerable to changes in their environment.”
Many factors, including climate, influence patterns of infectious diseases like Lyme disease, mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus, and childhood diarrhea. Rising temperature has been linked to the northward spread of Lyme disease in the United States, putting more children at risk of this disease.
Extreme weather events. Children’s unique needs place them at risk of injury or death, separation from or loss of caregivers, and mental health consequences following weather disasters. Disasters can also harm children through devastation of the community resources on which they rely for their healthy mental and physical development like schools and hospitals.
Food security. Agricultural productivity and food prices can be affected by extreme heat, drought, flood, and rising sea levels. The nutrient content of major crops like wheat and rice may be altered by rising atmospheric Carbon Dioxide concentration.
Mental health. Children from communities affected by weather disasters are at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
“Pediatricians, parents, and our communities today have an unprecedented opportunity to protect our children and grandchildren.”
What can we do?
Our country’s leading scientific organizations and 97 percent of climate scientists tell us that climate change is happening today as a result of increasing levels of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. However, they also tell us that we can still prevent the most serious changes if we act now. Here are some things all of us can do:
- Pediatricians can promote medical educational opportunities and inform policymakers on the risks climate change poses to child health.
- Doctors can help families prepare for weather disasters.
- We can reduce our energy consumption at home, at work and on the road.
- We can bike, walk, and use other modes of active transportation, which is good for our climate, and for our health.
- We can reduce, re-use, and recycle.
- Kids can get involved by learning about climate change from NASA or via the Green Schools Alliance.
- Parents can join groups such as Mom’s Clean Air Force to work on the local and national level to protect families.
- We all can advocate for policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Most importantly, you can let your political leaders know you care.
Policy efforts. The AAP has weighed in with policymakers on efforts that will help to clean our air and to protect future generations. This summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan, its final rule to limit carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. Power plants are the nation’s largest carbon pollution source, generating approximately one third of all U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, a leading contributor to climate change. When fully implemented in 2030, the EPA’s proposed rule for existing power plants will result in 6,600 fewer premature deaths, 150,000 fewer child asthma attacks, 180,000 fewer missed school days, and 3,700 fewer cases of child bronchitis. In the near term, this AAP-supported plan would have an immediate impact on child health by reducing emission of other pollutants and the resulting creation of harmful ozone.
Act now. Pediatricians, parents, and our communities today have an unprecedented opportunity to protect our children and grandchildren. Great challenges bring great opportunities. We can each protect the next generation by working together to prevent dangerous climate change, but to have a real impact we must act now.
AAP’s climate change policy
In a policy statement and technical report published today by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the academy urges legislators and pediatricians to work together to reduce the threat of climate change on children’s health. That means promoting real changes, from pediatricians’ offices to Capitol Hill.
About the Author
Samantha Ahdoot, MD, FAAP, is the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatric’s Policy Statement on Global Climate Change and Children’s Health, which was updated on Oct. 26, 2015, and an accompanying Technical Report.