For the first time ever, the American Medical Association (AMA), the nation’s largest organization of physicians, has declared climate change a public health crisis. While many people are already aware of the effects that air pollution has on our health, another unique study shows the skyrocketing financial cost of it—on children’s health in particular. Researchers are hoping their data can help shape the public policy programs that are sorely needed.
The cost-focused study at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health compiled the estimated per-case costs of six childhood health conditions linked to air pollution: preterm birth, low birth weight, asthma, autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and IQ reduction. Research shows these six conditions are among the most likely consequences of prenatal and early childhood exposure to air pollution.
The researchers cite previously published estimates ranging from $23,573 for childhood asthma not persisting into adulthood to $3 million for a case of autism with a concurrent intellectual disability. They hope these cost estimates will be used when determining benefits assessments of air pollution and climate change policies going forward.
Kids carry most of the burden of climate change
More than 40 percent of the burden of environmentally related diseases and more than 88 percent of the burden of climate change is borne by children younger than 5, according to the World Health Organization. Childhood disorders such as asthma and ADHD have been increasing over time, with asthma having a prevalence of about 8 percent and ADHD a prevalence of 10 percent.
Children are at an increased risk because they’re physiologically very different from adults. They are in a dynamic state of growth, with cells multiplying and organ systems developing at a rapid rate. At birth their nervous, respiratory, reproductive and immune systems are not yet fully developed. Young children breathe more rapidly and take in more air in proportion to their body weight than do adults. They also have higher metabolic rates and a higher proportionate intake of food and liquid than do adults. And infants and toddlers can be at increased risk to some hazards due to their unique behaviors, such as crawling and putting their hands to their mouths.
Children in lower income communities and communities of color are at even greater risk of suffering harm from environmental hazards.
Additional recent research shows how the negative effects of climate change, and the air pollution from fossil fuels that are driving it, threaten a child’s health starting in their mother’s womb and throughout the course of their life. One study found more than 90 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion children are exposed to particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels at levels beyond what the World Health Organization deems safe. Another report showed that air pollution takes more than 2 years off of the global life expectancy, which is even higher than the impact of smoking.
“Impacts on children’s health are generally under-represented in benefits assessments related to environmental pollution,” co-author Frederica Perera, PhD, professor of environmental health sciences and director of translational research at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, said in a statement. “Policies to clean our air and address the serious and escalating problem of climate change will yield numerous benefits for children’s health and for the financial health of families and our nation.”