Young children and infants are most likely to be harmed by climate change-related threats like food insecurity, extreme heat, air pollution, and diseases.
The recently released 2019 Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, an annual, international assessment of the effects of climate change on human health, highlighted the disproportionate effects of climate change on children’s health.
First, children are the most vulnerable to undernutrition. Changes in the incidence of pests and pathogens, worsening water scarcity, and increases in extreme weather have decreased crop yields around the world, sometimes even wiping out harvests. Food insecurity affects children, especially infants, the most since they are worst affected by the potentially permanent consequences of undernutrition such as growth restriction, stunting, severe wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and poor breastfeeding.
Particulate matter, emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels, also threatens the health of children. In fact, more than 90% of children worldwide are exposed to particulate pollution levels that are above the safe limit determined by the World Health Organization. Exposure to particulates is linked to increased risk of lung damage, impaired lung growth, pneumonia, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Additionally, children suffer from the most severe effects of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Changes in temperature, humidity, and precipitation have contributed to more suitable climate conditions for disease transmission. The top 10 most suitable years for disease transmission have occurred since 2000.
During extreme heat events, young children also experience a greater risk of electrolyte imbalance, fever, respiratory disease, and kidney disease.
“Children are more vulnerable for many reasons,” says Dr. Alan Peterson, board member of the Partnership for Public Health. “They have developing brains and breathe more rapidly, so are more susceptible to the above risks. They don’t understand dehydration or how to prevent it. They spend more time outside being more susceptible to air pollution and heat.”
The Lancet Commission also reported that people aged 65 years or older are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, while women are the most vulnerable to increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events.