Fossil Fuels’ Two-way Assault on Children’s Health Needs to Stop

by Duane Nichols on June 22, 2016

Columbia Prof. Frederica Perera

A children’s health expert, seeing our kids imperiled by fossil fuels and climate change, calls for a kids-first revamp of energy policies

From an Article by Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News, June 21, 2016

Fossil fuels represent a two-pronged attack on the health of children, a leading health scientist has warned. To foster health and well-being in future generations, society needs to dramatically decrease dependence on dirty energy.

The benefits to children’s health and future economy from a reduction in fossil fuel use are enormous—$230 billion per year, according to researchers—and must factor into any policy arguments.

Beyond the scientific and economic arguments for reducing the burning of fossil fuels, there is a “strong moral imperative to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Perera wrote in the commentary published today in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Debate over energy use and regulation, she said in an interview, must “look at the full cost” of continued reliance on fossil fuels.

“We must include health costs,” she said. “As a nation we need to convince policymakers to think in an integrated way when it comes to climate change, public health, energy and the environment.”

“As a nation we need to convince policymakers to think in an integrated way when it comes to climate change, public health, energy and the environment.”-Frederica Perera, Columbia University Mailman School of Public HealthBurning fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, and oil—releases a toxic mix of compounds, including particulate matter, mercury, carbon monoxide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Exposure to such pollutants, both as a fetus and during early childhood, has been associated with a bunch of health problems in kids: low birth weights, preterm births, asthma, reduced IQs, depression and anxiety to name a few.

“A lot of it is from inflammation, a process our body just doesn’t like,” said Lori Byron, a pediatrician based in Hardin, Montana, and member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit advocating for policies to address climate change. “The list [of health effects] just keeps growing.”

Those same fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gases, which drive global climate change. Global warming is projected to increase heat, droughts and storm intensity in many regions, which can lead to food insecurity for kids, bolstered bug-driven diseases such as the Zika virus, and heat related illness.

Also, as droughts and extreme heat feed social and political instability, there are the mental health effects on children forced to migrate, often from one poor country to another.

“We’ve been focused too much on polar bears and ice caps, not what impacts people’s daily lives,” said Michael Green, chief executive officer at the Center for Environmental Health.

Children, with brains and bodies still developing, are more sensitive and vulnerable to all of these problems.

“The children I worry about most are those kids in the worst situations already, poor, living in coastal cities, already dealing with marginal health and maybe dealing with other pollutants, like lead from water,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Climate change is amplifying all of those effects, from food security, to displacement of families, to mobilization of pollutants in soil,” he said.

There are other “synergistic” effects between climate change and air toxics as well, Perera said, such as worsening ground-level ozone, which is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds interact. Warmer temperatures hasten the formation. “Greater concentrations of ozone at ground level greatly exacerbates asthma in children,” she said.

“There’s also cumulative impacts on children and babies in utero of having exposure to air toxics, and associated effects on birth outcomes and health and development, and then some are also getting insults, stresses from climate change—malnutrition, excess disease, more pollution, and more heat related disorders,” she said.

The impacts can last a lifetime. “The harm may be experienced in the first months or years, but it plays out over the entire life,” Perera said. “Respiratory illness is a risk factor for COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] in adulthood. ADHD, reduced IQ, autism, these don’t just disappear, but persist and affect function, well-being and the ability to contribute to society.”

The price tag to all this? Coal plants alone cost the U.S. an estimated $100 billion a year due to health impacts. And the World Health Organization estimated that climate change would cost the planet up to $4 billion a year by 2030 due to deaths and disease.

But those costs can be turned into savings through reduced health costs. Increasing renewables such as wind and solar power to 36 percent of global energy consumption by 2030 could help avoid an estimated $230 billion of health costs, according to a 2015 study.

In the U.S., a study released this month estimated that a national power plant standard that would achieve a 35 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 would net approximately $33 billion a year in health cost savings.

Perera sees progress: The global commitment to reduce greenhouse gases at the United Nations’ Paris climate talks last year is a prime example. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, stayed by the Supreme Court for now, could lead to an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion in climate- and health-related benefits in 2030, according to the Obama Administration.

Perera said that by framing energy policy as a children’s health issue, politicians might be able to cut through some of the impasse blocking fossil fuel reform.

“It’s a value we all share,” she said. “Every culture, every family, every person cares about vulnerable children and making sure they’re protected from harm.”

<<< In a commentary released today summarizing the key science around fossil fuels and children’s health, Frederica Perera, a professor and researcher at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, argues the science clearly shows that both toxic air emission and climate change as a result of fossil fuel emissions pose grave dangers to children. >>>

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frederica Perera June 22, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Opinion: The case for a child-centered energy and climate policy

By Frederica Perera, Environmental Health News, June 21, 2016

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece written for EHN accompanies Perera’s commentary on fossil fuels and children’s health published today in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal.

Children suffer the most from fossil fuel burning.

Fossil fuel combustion and associated air pollution and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the root cause of much of children’s ill health children today as well as their uncertain future. There are strong scientific arguments, as well persuasive economic ones, for reducing the world’s dependence on energy generated by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, diesel and gasoline.

These include the 7 million adult deaths per year attributed to ambient air pollution, most of it from fossil fuel burning. Less recognized is the huge and largely silent toll on children’s health and development from both air toxics and climate change.

Children, whose bodies and brains are especially vulnerable to harm as they develop in utero and in the first years of life, bear a disproportionate burden of disease from both air pollution and climate change. Exposure to toxic air pollutants released during fossil fuel combustion contributes to low birth weight, cognitive and behavioral disorders, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Climate change is linked to increases in heat-related disease, malnutrition, infectious disease, physical trauma, mental health issues and respiratory illnesses.

While air pollution and the adverse health impacts of climate change affect us all, they are most damaging to children, especially the developing fetus and young child and particularly those of low socioeconomic status, who often have the greatest exposures and least amount of protection.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one third of the global burden of disease is caused by environmental factors and more than 40 percent of that burden is borne by children under the age of five. Likewise, nearly 90 percent of the global burden of disease caused by climate change is borne by the youngest inhabitants of our planet, with the bulk of that burden falling on people who live in developing countries.

Children in low-income communities in the U.S., as well as globally, suffer most due to disproportionately high exposures to polluting sources, which are more likely to be built in or near the neighborhoods in which they live. The poor are also more likely to live in areas vulnerable to drought and flooding exacerbated by climate change.

Harm from these exposures is magnified by other factors associated with poverty, such as poor nutrition, inadequate social support and psychosocial stresses associated with poverty and racism. Even in the United States , the world’s most prosperous country, the child poverty rate is an astounding 22 percent.

Every day that we refuse to act compounds these problems. Inaction perpetuates the health damage from toxic air pollutants and delays and reduces our ability to thwart the increasingly severe consequences of climate change. And it carries long-term consequences for each and every new child conceived.

There’s no question that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels would achieve highly significant health and economic benefits for children worldwide … Knowing this, we have a moral imperative to enact child-centered energy and climate policies.Exposure in utero and in early childhood to toxic emissions, famine, flooding and other disasters not only increases the risk for neurodevelopmental and mental health problems, stunting, respiratory and other health problems manifest in infancy and childhood, but also for heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer in adulthood.

Finally, a growing body of evidence suggests that early-life exposures to air pollutants, nutritional deprivation, and stress may impact the health of future generations, possibly by altering the regulation of genes involved in disease pathways.

Estimates of the economic costs are limited, but indicate the magnitude of potential benefits of action. The economic cost of preterm births attributable to airborne particulate matter in the U.S. was estimated to be over $4 billion/year in 2010. The estimated monetary cost of the health impacts attributable to air pollution from existing coal plants in the U.S. in 2010 exceeded $100 billion a year. The WHO has estimated that by 2030, the global cost of climate change from deaths and diseases (just from diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria and heat stress) will be $2-4 billion per year.

There’s no question that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels would achieve highly significant health and economic benefits for children worldwide, both immediately and well into the future – vastly improving the health and well being of generations to come. Knowing this, we have a moral imperative to enact child-centered energy and climate policies that address the full array of physical and psychosocial stressors to which children are subjected due to fossil fuel combustion.

To do less than we can to protect them from preventable harm is nothing short of neglect. As their guardians and protectors, we must act responsibly.

There’s no question that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels would achieve highly significant health and economic benefits for children worldwide … Knowing this, we have a moral imperative to enact child-centered energy and climate policies.

Frederica Perera is a professor and researcher at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. Her commentary, Multiple Threats to Child Health from Fossil Fuel Combustion: Impacts of Air Pollution and Climate Change, published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives today argues for child-centered energy and climate policy.


Mary Wildfire June 23, 2016 at 8:05 am

The trouble is, if we get 30 or 40% of our electricity from renewable energy by 2030, we may reduce expenditures on children’s health costs but this rather ambitious goal is so far short of what’s needed in relation to climate change that it’s almost irrelevant.

We’ve used up two decades arguing about whether climate change is real, steadily INCREASING emissions. Now, to fend off climate change that will be utterly catastrophic to children’s (and everyone else’s) health, we need drastic, extreme reductions.

When you consider that electricity is only about a quarter of our energy use — we ALSO need to slash emissions from transportation, heating buildings and water, and agriculture — well, I put it like this:

If we are unwilling to embrace the drastic change in lifestyle needed to rapidly reduce emissions, the least we can do is be responsible enough to stop having children, as we’re condemning them to a Hellish world.

Mary Wildfire, Spencer, WV


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