Dr. Samantha Ahdoot is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine, and a partner with Pediatric Associates of Alexandria. She serves on the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health and was lead author of their Policy Statement on Climate Change and Children’s Health, published in November 2015. Dr. Ahdoot serves as the Chair of the Pediatric Department of Inova Alexandria Hospital and is on the Board of Directors for the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Strange winter weather has been disorienting. Children are riding bikes instead of ice-skating. Bees are buzzing, daffodils are blooming and we wonder if spring is here in February?
Warmer temperatures are affecting the behaviors or people and animals and the growing patterns of plants. It is not surprising, therefore, that they are also affecting our health. In physician offices across the country, doctors are noticing shifts in the timing, location and severity of certain health conditions. That is why 2017 is the American Public Health Association’s Year of Climate Change and Health.
Over the past decade in my pediatric practice in Alexandria, I have noticed children presenting with shifting patterns of some climate-related conditions. Here are four of their stories.
Emmanuel is a seven-year-old boy who came to see me last April with the worst eye allergies I had ever seen. He had already been seen twice and was taking three different allergy medications. Despite this, his eyes were severely red, almost swollen shut and horribly itchy. I placed him on a steroid eye drop, a medication I rarely use.
Spring is coming earlier and winter later. This means that plants are blooming earlier and longer. Rising amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, produced by burning of dirty fuels like oil and gas, also cause some plants to make much more pollen. As a result, the allergy season is longer and more severe than in the past.
Robert is a teenager who moved to Virginia to live with relatives after his home and community were destroyed by a hurricane. He did very poorly in school, developed behavior problems and got in trouble with law enforcement. He was placed in a home for at-risk youth.
Extreme weather, including wildfires, flooding and hurricanes are increasing in frequency and severity. These events devastate entire communities, and are particularly hard on children, who depend on stable schools, doctor offices and parental employment for their healthy growth and development.
Ticks on the Move
Sonya is a six-year-old girl who came to see me last November for a rash. She had just returned from a trip to Chicago, where it was unseasonably warm, and her parents found a tick on her chest. She developed Lyme disease.
Earlier springs and later falls are lengthening the season for tick-borne infections. Higher temperatures have also brought Lyme disease to unusual places, like Maine and Canada, where it was previously too cold for ticks to survive.
Too Hot to Handle
Isaac was a nine-year-old who was playing clarinet in band camp on a 95° July day when he passed out. It was a record-setting hot summer with a heat index reaching 120 degrees. He was brought by ambulance to the ER for heat exhaustion. Isaac is also my son. It was this experience that first got me concerned about what the changing climate change means for the health of our children.
Heat waves are getting worse. This is putting more children at risk of heat injury. While all children can suffer from excessive heat, infants less than one year and student athletes are at highest risk. Every year, some 9,000 high school athletes are treated for heat-related illnesses, with football players at greatest risk. Between 1997-2006, room visits for heat increased by 133 percent.
Climate change is occurring and is affecting the health of people today. While anyone can be affected, certain groups, including children, pregnant women and the poor, are particularly vulnerable.
More than 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is a man-made problem. It is the result of our burning of dirty fuels that have released massive amounts heat-trapping gasses into our atmosphere. These gasses are acting like a blanket, keeping heat around our planet and causing it to warm.
We caused it. So we also can fix it.
We can work as individuals to reduce our use of dirty fuels. We can insulate our homes, use more efficient lighting and walk and bike more, improving our fitness and reducing pollution.
We can work as professionals. The healthcare sector, for example, is responsible for 8% of US greenhouse gas emissions. We can make a major difference, working together through organizations like Healthcare Without Harm to reduce hospital energy use, saving money and cleaning the air.
We can work as communities. Cities and counties across the country are working to improve their efficiency and reduce their pollution. Ten years ago, Fairfax County pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. We need to ensure that happens.
We can work as a nation. Climate change is not a partisan issue. We can join together, Republicans and Democrats, to implement strategies that phase out dirty fuels and phase in clean, home-grown energy from the wind and sun.
We care for our climate to care for our children. Let’s work together to create healthy and safe communities that protect our children’s health and their future.