The Impact of Climate Change on Children’s Health
The greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere entrap the heat from the sun and thus prevent it from escaping back into space. This results in an increased temperature of the earth’s surface and is called the greenhouse effect. The increased emission of greenhouse gases has led to an enhanced greenhouse effect and global warming. It is predicted that if the current trends continue, the average global temperature will increase by 1.5-2°C by the end of the century (IPCC, 2013).
The effects of global warming are already being felt by humans and the natural world. These include more frequent and more intense heat waves, floods and droughts. There has been an increase in wildfires and insect infestations. There has been a decline in crop yields and fish stocks (IPCC, 2014). All of these impacts are likely to get worse as the temperature continues to rise.
There is a large body of evidence that shows that children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is because they are still growing and developing and their bodies are not yet fully formed. They also have a higher respiratory rate than adults, which means they breathe in more air (and pollutants) per unit of body weight. Additionally, they spend more time outdoors, where they are exposed to extreme weather conditions and air pollution (WHO, 2016).
In this paper, we will refocus on whether the effects of greenhouse gases are more widespread in children’s health than in grown-ups and aged people. We will further explore how different types of greenhouse gases affect children’s health in different ways.
2. How do greenhouse gases affect children?
Greenhouse gases can have a range of different effects on children’s health. These include effects on respiratory health, cognitive development and learning, mental health, and chronic diseases.
3. The effect of greenhouse gases on respiratory health:
One of the most significant effects of climate change on children’s health is through its impact on respiratory health. Air pollution, which is exacerbated by climate change, is a leading cause of death in children under five years old (WHO, 2016). Exposure to air pollution can cause a range of respiratory problems in children, including asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia (Nieuwenhuijsen et al., 2010). A study in China found that exposure to high levels of air pollution was associated with an increased risk of wheezing and coughing in children (Wang et al., 2015).
One of the main pollutants that contributes to poor respiratory health is particulate matter (PM), which is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air (WHO, 2016). PM10 particles are 10 micrometres or less in diameter and can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. PM2.5 particles are 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter and can penetrate even deeper into the lungs (NIEHS, 2012). Studies have found that exposure to PM2.5 is associated with an increased risk of bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma attacks and hospital admissions for respiratory problems (WHO, 2006).
Ozone (O3) is another pollutant that can have harmful effects on children’s respiratory health. O3 is a gas that is formed when other pollutants react in the presence of sunlight (NIEHS, 2012). O3 is a main component of smog and can irritate the respiratory system, leading to coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing (WHO, 2006). Studies have found that exposure to O3 is associated with an increased risk of bronchitis, asthma and hospital admissions for respiratory problems (Dockery et al., 1992; Keeler et al., 1994).
4. The effect of greenhouse gases on cognitive development and learning:
There is evidence that exposure to air pollution can adversely affect children’s cognitive development and learning. A study in China found that exposure to PM2.5 was associated with decreased scores on tests of verbal and non-verbal intelligence (Wang et al., 2015). Another study in China found that exposure to PM2.5 was associated with decreased scores on tests of memory and attention (Zhang et al., 2016). Additionally, a US study found that exposure to higher levels of traffic-related air pollution was associated with lower scores on tests of reading and math comprehension (Gilliland et al., 2007).
5. The effect of greenhouse gases on mental health:
There is evidence that climate change can adversely affect children’s mental health. A review of studies found that there was an association between exposure to environmental disasters and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children (Yap et al., 2010). A US study found that children who experienced more extreme weather events were more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression (Watkins et al., 2013). A Canadian study found that children who were exposed to higher levels of traffic-related air pollution were more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression ( Evans et al., 2010).
6. The effect of greenhouse gases on chronic diseases:
There is evidence that climate change can increase the risk of chronic diseases in children. A US study found that exposure to higher levels of traffic-related air pollution was associated with an increased risk of obesity in children (Gilliland et al., 2009). A Swedish study found that exposure to O3 was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in children (Bergstrom et al., 2011). Additionally, a UK study found that exposure to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was associated with an increased risk of heart disease in children (Richardson et al., 2008).
In conclusion, there is a growing body of evidence that shows the negative effects of climate change on children’s health. These effects are wide-ranging and include respiratory problems, cognitive difficulties, mental health problems and chronic diseases. Given the vulnerability of children to the effects of climate change, it is imperative that action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
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