5 Questions on Climate Change and Children’s Health with Dr. Perera
May 27, 2014
We recently read an Op-Ed on climate change and kid’s health co-written by Dr. Frederica Perera, professor of environmental health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.
She wrote it following a recent report from the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which clearly stated that climate change is already affecting health in the United States. She contends that children’s health is missing from the public discourse on climate change and its root cause, fossil fuel burning, which emits the greenhouse gas CO2 and generates toxic pollutants. So we jumped at the opportunity to ask her to help us connect the dots between climate change and kids’ health and to find out what, if anything, parents can do to safeguard children at this moment of considerable uncertainty.
1. How is climate change a kids’ health issue?
Let’s start with the affects of climate change globally as well as in the U.S: the trauma and stress, malnutrition, disease. We see the vectors shifting with change in the climate and increased air pollution such as ozone levels are higher in a warmer climate. We call those exposures or adverse outcomes. Those disproportionately affect children; they are extremely susceptible to stress and toxic exposures during early development—prenatal, fetal, and during childhood.
2. What are some specific climate change-related illnesses we are already seeing? Can you explain the cause?
A major cause is fossil fuel, the originator of CO2, but also of toxic pollutants linked to adverse health effects—developmental, neurodevelopmental, asthma, and other chronic disease. The young child is so biologically susceptible in a major way, much more than their parents and older individuals. We have to be very concerned about the risk to children. We are already seeing some of those effects globally and in the U.S. as well. Drought leads to malnutrition, storms cause injuries and spikes in waterborne infectious disease and heat waves lead to dehydration and heat stress. I cite the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that kids bear the health brunt of global warming around the globe. WHO estimates 88 percent of climate-change-related illnesses and injuries occur in children under age five.
3. Is there a fix?
This is a call for a reduction on our reliance on fossil fuels. The way we are generating energy, transportation, heating, and cooling. Fossil fuels are providing the vast majority of our energy needs.
4. In your Op-Ed, you state that in July 2006, a devastating heat wave in California sent 2,500 kids to emergency rooms. Your study also projects that by the 2020s, in New York City, kids’ ozone-related emergency room visits will likely rise by seven percent, with heat waves predicted to be come more frequent and dangerous in cities and across the South and West. How much would it cost to “fix” this situation vs. the health care costs of not “fixing” it?
I put this as the good news. Estimates of the economic costs do tell us a policy to limit heat trapping climate pollution would help. I address this in my Op-Ed: the health costs of 6 climate change related events in the U.S between 2000 and 2009 were about $14 billion, including $740 million in health care costs. The avoided health costs (benefits) attributed to the regulation of air pollutants by the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 are estimated to reach almost $2 trillion for the year 2020. This amount is much much greater than the direct costs of putting those limits into effect ($65 billion).
5. What can parents do?
This really is a policy issue. We can do things at home to reduce exposure to inhalation pollution but this does require international efforts on the part of policy as well as national state and even local. Some things are happening at the state and local level but the progress is really very slow. It is a problem for our elected officials and experts in policy.
About Dr. Perera: Frederica P. Perera, Dr.P.H., Ph.D. Dr. Perera is a Professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, where she serves as Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. Dr. Perera is internationally recognized for pioneering the field of molecular epidemiology, utilizing biomarkers to understand links between environmental exposures and disease. Currently, she and her colleagues are applying advanced molecular and imaging techniques within longitudinal cohort studies of pregnant women and their children, with the goal of identifying preventable risk factors for developmental disorders, asthma, obesity and cancer in childhood. Her areas of specialization include prevention of environmental risks to children, molecular epidemiology, disease prevention, environment-susceptibility interactions, and risk assessment. She is the author of over 300 publications, including 270 peer reviewed articles, and has received numerous honors.