Climate Change Threatening Our Children’s Health: The Lancet

The world is rapidly changing and climate change can no longer be denied - we have too much evidence of that already.

The changes in natural weather patterns have lead to an increase in heatwaves and flooding and more warping of our natural phenomena, but what impact has this had on our health? Outlining climate change’s direct health impacts, especially on vulnerable populations underscores the urgency needed to address this global issue.

This year, The Lancet Countdown 2019 report, targeted just that as it focused on the effect of climate change on child health.

Dr Nick Watts, Executive Director of The Lancet Countdown“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants. The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.”

FIT spoke to Dr Poornima Prabhakaran at Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) who insisted that, “children and health need to be at the center of climate change discourse.”

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Dr Poornima Prabhakaran, author of the India policy brief in the Lancet report“Every child across their life course, currently and the future generation too, will have to face the effects of climate change.”

The report took into stock 41 key indicators to empirically prove that children were the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Delhi is currently battling with severe and hazardous air pollution levels and children are among the worst affected.

From changing nutrition patterns to increasing the spread of infectious diseases - the report emphasised that without serious action to reverse climate change now, we could be seeing a rolling back on all the public health gains we have worked towards.

How Do India’s Children Fare?

India has 4 areas that will be particularly affected as Dr Prabhakaran explains:

  1. Food security and nutrition: “The rising temperatures can affect crop yield and there has been a declining trend over the last 30 years according to the data.” She adds that this means not just the number of crops harvested are affected via the declining seed yield but the nutrient content in the seed is diminishing as well with the changes. “This exacerbates India’s existing malnutrition, as kids will not get the required macronutrients from their food.” According to the report, malnutrition is already responsible for two-thirds of under-5 deaths. "This also creates rising food prices and is thus making India a ‘transitional society’ where since crop yield is affected, we are making the shift to processed foods. This leads to the problem of over-nutrition and obesity amongst children.” Dr Prabhakaran adds that, “over- and under-nutrition feed into each other.”
  2. Rising heatwaves globally: In 2018, there were 220 million heatwave exposures globally. “Not just the frequency, but the duration and intensity of these also went up and globally this is linked to many health issues. Strokes, dehydration, cardiovascular diseases - these are all at risk. The electrolyte loss during a heatwave affects children the most.”
  3. Air pollution: In the current scenario, especially in the Capital, the impact of air pollution on children is evident. On Wednesday, 13 November, it was announced that schools are to remain shut again in light of the pollution. The deteriorating air quality hugely affects our health and almost every part of our body, from our lungs to our skin and more. “Much of the pollutants that cause air pollution are the same ones that cause climate change: increased vehicular emissions and burning of fossil fuels.” FIT earlier reported that children born in a polluted city are at a severe disadvantage from the time of their birth. “Every newborn who is born in New Delhi city is smoking 25 cigarettes from the first day of his or her life,” said lung surgeon Dr Arvind Kumar.
  4. The rise in infectious diseases: The rising temperatures have meant that more diseases and pathogens are flourishing for longer and report states that the “climatic suitability for the Vibrio bacteria that cause cholera rising 3% a year in India since the early 1980s.” Vector-borne diseases are most enhanced, and of course, children are most at risk. “Dengue and the pathogen for diarrhoea are also seeing an increase.”

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While children represent our future and are among the most vulnerable populations, people over 65, pregnant women and economically-weaker populations who typically work outside in poor conditions are all the most affected by climate change.

Dr Prabhakaran adds that, “people over 65 are especially vulnerable to heatwaves.”

Besides, there is also an economic cost to climate change. The report adds that there is a “99% of economic losses from extreme weather uninsured in low-income countries.” Dr Prabhakaran says that almost 22 million labour hours are lost from agriculture and service industries.

What Can We Do?

The report states that if we stay in strict adherence to the Paris agreement, to limit warming to well below 2˚C, we may be able to achieve a net-zero emissions world for a child born today by the time they are 31.

If that sounds disheartening, it shouldn’t. It emphasises two basic, urgent issues:

  • climate change is not just affecting kids now, but even those not born yet.
  • we can still reverse the effects of climate change in the next generation’s lifetime.

The world needs a concerted, urgent action plan on climate change and health. Dr Prabhakaran says that India is working towards a policy on the same, and once the government passes this it will be disseminated to states as part of their action plan on climate change and healthcare.

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Besides a major transition to renewable energies, strict laws and penalties for over-limit emissions and more, what can we do to address the specific health concerns?

Dr Prabhakaran told me that we must address the cause of climate change and work towards reversing it now. But she added that health preparedness is a must. “We need to increase the capacity of our healthcare professionals and systems to build resilient healthcare.”

Dr Prabhakaran“In a flood, the last building standing should be a hospital.”

FIT earlier reported that the healthcare industry in itself was a major contributor to global emissions, and so that must be corrected urgently too.

Dr Prabhakaran“This report was made to stress the urgency of the situation. Every child, now and in the future, in every stage will be affected without active intervention to reverse climate change.

(Delhi is in a public health emergency and schools are shut again. The air outside is visibly toxic - how has the hazardous air #pollution impacted you? Write down your #PollutionKaSolution and send it to us at FIT@thequint.com. )

Also Read: Delhi School Kids Have Worse Lungs Than The Kids in Rural Schools

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