Over the past two decades, my research and that of many other scientists has revealed the extraordinary vulnerability of children to climate change and air pollution, both largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. By studying pregnant women and their children, we have shown that climate change and air pollution are causing serious damage to children’s health and brain development, even while they are in the womb. This is nothing short of a public health emergency and especially for children who, due to skin color or family income, are the hardest hit. But there are political, technological and individual solutions, and there is much we can and should do.
Awareness that climate change and air pollution affect the developing brain has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Research has now linked prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution to lower IQ and other cognitive problems, developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, depression and anxiety, and even structural changes in children’s brains. Research has also shown how climate-related displacement causes education disruption and mental health problems such as PTSD, anxiety and depression in children. These conditions often persist, affecting brain health and function into adulthood. They also add to the list of harms that have been more widely recognized as related to climate change and air pollution: heat-related illnesses, drowning and physical trauma from severe storms and floods, premature birth and low birth weight, asthma and other respiratory disease.
Read more: Extreme heat makes it difficult for children to be active. But exercise is vital in a warming world
Importantly, the new understanding of the fetal brain’s vulnerability has debunked several myths: the first was the long-held belief that the placenta served as the perfect barrier, protecting the fetus from exposure to harmful agents in the mother’s environment. The second was that the baby’s brain was effectively protected by a “blood-brain barrier” which acted as a sentinel to prevent the passage of toxic agents into the fetal brain. We now know that toxic chemicals and stressors experienced by the pregnant mother can be transferred to the fetus and developing brain.
There are many reasons why the young brain is so vulnerable. The rapid and complex developmental programming during the fetal period is particularly prone to disruption from toxic air pollutants and climate-related stressors. Consider the fact that nearly all of the 100 billion nerve cells in our adult brains were formed while we were in utero, and much of the brain’s architecture was built at this time. Vulnerability continues through the early years as the brain continues to develop along complex pathways. Compounding the problem, children also lack the fully functioning biological defense mechanisms that operate in adults, such as the complex enzyme systems that detoxify harmful pollutants and repair their damaged DNA.
Of growing concern is the possible cumulative, rather than additive, effect on mental health from concurrent exposure to environmental and climate “shocks” such as severe droughts, floods, water shortages and high levels of air pollution. It is estimated that 1 in 3 children worldwide live in regions where at least four of these shocks overlap. We know that adverse experiences in childhood increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders both in the short term and in adulthood.
Even when children have not directly experienced a climate-related shock, the stress of being aware of climate change and its effects, known as climate change anxiety, increases the risk of mental health problems in young people. Nearly 60% of young people taking part in a recent global survey said they feel extremely concerned about climate change; nearly half said their daily lives were negatively impacted by these feelings.
Here is the challenge for government leaders and for all of us: to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, the United States must meet its stated goals: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. It may seem like a very short time, but fortunately the solutions are known and available right now. They include government policies to rapidly increase energy efficiency and expand renewable capacity (primarily solar and wind), ensure nearly all vehicles sold by 2030 are electric, and accelerate the transition of buildings and industries to electrification, all combined to various forms of energy storage, expanding transmission, and improving the ability of forests and soils to securely store carbon.
Solutions also include social programs to reduce poverty through housing assistance, financial support and childcare and to provide basic water and sanitation services, quality health care and education to the most vulnerable children. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act are important steps towards these goals, but more action and greater political will are needed.
Given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, government has a primary responsibility to act and must do so in a way that protects the intellectual development and mental and physical health of all children, enabling them to thrive and reach their full potential. . However, there is much that we as individuals can do as well. First, we can become advocates for children by educating and electing leaders who will work towards legislative and policy solutions that benefit children and, in doing so, benefit us all. Second, we can make smart energy decisions for our homes. We can choose a utility company that generates its energy primarily from wind or solar power and, if possible, install solar panels. When renting, we can ask the landlord to put clean energy in place, which will save money at the same time.
Simple actions like replacing traditional incandescent bulbs with LEDs and setting thermostats down just 1 degree in the winter and up 1 degree in the summer make a big difference when enough of us do. does. We can save water and eat more plant-based foods and less meat and dairy products. We can choose to buy or rent an electric car and use mass transit where possible.
More importantly, we can help change the culture by telling our friends, family and neighbors about these choices and how they will improve our climate and our children’s health and future.
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