The Future of Children's Environmental Health: Coping with Global Warming

Article excerpt

At the time of this writing--in June--large swaths of Iowa are under water. Thirty-six thousand people have been evacuated from their homes. Highways are closed. Sewage treatment plants are closed. Residents are being warned to avoid contact with floodwaters and make sure their tetanus vaccinations are current (Lydersen, 2008). All except one of the wells from which Cedar Rapids draws its drinking water have been overwhelmed. And Time is reporting that 20% of the state's corn and soybean corp has been destroyed (Lorentzen, 2008).

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Well, why? What caused the tornadoes and record rainfall that preceded the floods? Was it global warming? As usual, no one's ready to say for sure. But the evidence increasingly suggests a connection, according to ScienceDaily, which quotes Dr. Jeffrey Gaffney, professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas and co-researcher in a study of the role aerosols are playing in climate change:

  "Basic thought is there's more energy in the atmosphere, more
  water vapor evaporating and greater likelihood for stronger
  heating events that lead to stronger thunderstorms--super cells,
  that can lead to tornado production" (University of Arkansas, 2008).

What do global warming and its attendant upheavals mean for children's environmental health? And what can environmental health departments do? JEH asked Dana Best, M.D., M.P.H., an expert in pediatric environmental health. Most of Best's work has looked at environmental exposures to children, and she directs the Smoke Free Project at the Children's National Medical Center. Last April, she testified on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

This article also draws on two reports issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): a technical report on climate change (AAP, 2007) and a policy statement (Shea & AAP, 2007).

According to Best, the key to understanding and preparing for global-warming impacts is to recognize that children are not just small adults. Their immune systems have not fully developed. They breathe faster. They drink more water per body weight. And they pass through a variety of critical developmental stages, during which the brain, the lungs, and other organs may be developing. The wrong kind of exposure occurring during a critical window of development can cause permanent harm.

"Getting messed up before you're an adult is a big problem," Best said, "whether it's your health, your mental health, or your reproductive health."

Climate Changes, Plural

The changes that the earth is now undergoing are not uniform. Precipitation is increasing in some areas. Other areas are experiencing more drought. In latitudes between 40[degrees]N and 70[degrees]N, temperatures are increasing, but in other areas, such as the southeastern part of the United States, temperatures are actually cooling (AAP, 2007). Changes in land and sea productivity and the viability of different species in different locations may reduce the availability of food. Both flooding and drought can affect the availability and potability of water.

So, as a result of shifting climate patterns, children may not reliably receive the nutrition they need for healthy development. Population displacements associated with rising sea levels, natural disasters, or political conflicts over resources also can disrupt nutrition at critical stages.

Direct Weather Impacts

It is widely recognized that the elderly are particularly susceptible to heat-related deaths during the heat waves that have been growing more common. Less well known is that children form a second group of people who are particularly vulnerable to hyperthermia.

Vectorborne Diseases

Tropical vectorborne diseases are spreading into new areas as the vectors move north with warming. …