by Alfred Bartlett, MD
Most of the carbon pollution causing climate damage comes from two places: the tailpipes of vehicles and the smokestacks of electric power generation plants, especially coal-fired plants. Those carbon producing sources also produce smog pollutants. Between the climate damage caused by the carbon, and the direct health damage from smog pollutants, there’s real and substantial damage to kids’ health.
If you’ve ever flown into Baltimore-Washington Airport - or any other airport of a large U.S. city – as you descend, the air around the city becomes brownish in color. That brown is smog, and our children are breathing it. Smog pollutants cause both short-term and lasting longer term harm to children. They worsen asthma and other childhood breathing problems – for example, the problems that some babies who were born prematurely and spent time on ventilators (breathing machines) have. Smog pollutants trigger more frequent asthma attacks. And they actually contribute to the increased rates of asthma we’re seeing in children. In Maryland our asthma rate is roughly 50 percent higher than the national average, and in Baltimore City, with quite smoggy air and many Code Orange or Code Red air quality days, the asthma rate is twice the national average.
But worse, smog pollutants from cars and power plants actually are harming children who appear healthy. A long-term study in Los Angeles found that higher levels of smog pollutants were strongly associated with lung damage that showed up on respiratory tests of children who did not appear to have breathing problems. Sadly, such unseen damage lasts into adult life and makes children more susceptible to serious heart and lung problems as adults.
Making it tougher on kids is the fact that the harm caused by smog pollutants is actually greatest when they are playing outside in summer. That's because coal-fired electric plants run more to support the extra power demand of air conditioning, and because sunlight reacts with vehicle and power plant pollutants to worsen their health effect.
With carbon pollution, people tend to think of effects on health – that is, effects associated with the climate damage caused by carbon buildup in the atmosphere – to be a future problem. But in fact, we already are experiencing them, and children are among the most vulnerable to climate-related health effects.
Kids are more likely to suffer harm from increasing temperatures, especially in urban areas where it stays hot at night. Having to stay inside because of increased heat or pollution makes children more likely to develop childhood obesity - another health problem that lasts into adult life. Kids are more likely to be exposed to diseases that are carried by insects whose range is expanding; Maryland is now in the range of both the ticks that carry Lyme Disease and the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus.
Our kids, and all of us, are also increasingly being exposed to extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods and tornados. In just the past year, the U.S. experienced eight rainstorms so intense they would be expected only once in 500 years, with communities across the country experiencing severe flooding. These weather disasters cause direct harm to some children themselves or to their family members, damage or destroy their homes, take away the sense of stability and security that all kids need, and for some, cause lasting psychological trauma. Extreme weather events also expose much larger numbers of children to secondary effects, like the massive water contamination that happened in the recent Ellicott City, Maryland, flood.
Climate-related health problems can affect every child – and kids with any sort of underlying health problem are even more susceptible.
What can a family do to protect children?
Air pollution, and climate damage and its causes seem too big to take on. But in fact, every family, and every one of us, can take steps that together will cut pollution, and slow - even stop - climate damage. For example, we can:
- Replace old light bulbs with compact fluorescent or - even better - LED bulbs (and turn off the lights when nobody’s in a room).
- Buy energy efficient appliances.
- Get a home energy efficiency audit, and make the most important improvements it identifies (potentially getting a tax credit in the process).
- Walk, bike or take public transportation whenever possible.
- Consider switching to clean renewable energy - wind or solar - through your utility or by putting solar on your house.
- Make your next car a plug-in electric – or at least a hybrid.
- Compost – it’s amazing how much your trash, and the energy used to transport it, can be reduced if you recycle the fruit and vegetable waste by composting.
- Have a garden – it’s a great thing to share with kids, but healthy soil and growing plants also actually take carbon out of the atmosphere.
Your workplace also could benefit from the same sort of energy efficiency measures. Such suggestions might be appreciated as they generally save businesses money. If you are inclined to get involved outside your home and work, you can support key steps in your community, like having bike lanes, improved energy efficiency building standards, installing solar on schools and other public buildings and more. Also, consider supporting these and other measures at your state level.
Smog and carbon pollution are hazardous to health – especially our children’s health. But individually and together, we can make a difference in what happens to our climate, to our kids’ health and to the future world that our kids will live in.
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Alfred Bartlett, MD, is a pediatrician, epidemiologist and retired U.S. Public Health Service officer. He is co-lead of Chesapeake PSR's Climate Health Action Team.