Extreme heat related to climate change is so dangerous to children’s health that it’s sending more children to hospital emergency rooms.
That’s the key finding of a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, which found that from late spring through late summer, higher temperatures are making kids and teens sick enough with dehydration, bacterial stomach upsets, and ear infections to land them in the ER.
It has long been thought that children have a “unique susceptibility” to the hotter temperatures caused by the climate crisis due to their immature and developing organ systems and different behavior patterns. Noting that “identifying the health risks to children from heat is of particular importance given the growing number of extreme heat days due to continued climate change,” researchers analyzed the almost 4 million ER visits youths aged infancy to 18 made May to September from 2016 to 2018 at 47 hospitals in 27 states. They found that almost 12% of those visits could be attributed to elevated temperatures, the New York Times summarized.
Researchers also found that children may show up at ERs with “injuries, infections and digestive diseases” even two or three days after an extreme heat day. Notably, associations between high-temperature days and ER visits were not confined to the hottest days but were evident across a range of warm season temperatures. In other words, the study’s results suggest that a significant proportion of illness was not necessarily due to “extremely” hot temperatures–just temperatures hot enough to send children into distress.
A third key finding of the study was that non-white children and those who rely on public health insurance like Medicaid are at higher risk for climate-related illnesses than children with private insurance and otherwise good access to care. This unfortunately mirrors findings of other analyses showing that children who live in disadvantaged communities of color are more likely to get sick than those who live in healthier environments.
“Days with extreme heat are going to be more frequent and more intense,” Francesca Dominici of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health told the New York Times. As the climate crisis wears on, the specter of long-term illness hangs over children’s heads. It’s critical to know which diseases that manifest on a hot day are “completely curable with proper intervention, and which may create chronic disease later in life.”
In June 2021, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association were among many other medical and public health groups that issued a call to action asking the US government and business and community leaders to recognize climate change as a health emergency. While many have done so, none have issued guidelines on how providers should talk to their patients about the climate.
Rather than wait for that to happen, Dr. Cheryl Holder and other doctors have formed a nonprofit organization called Florida Clinicians for Climate Action expressly to give clinicians the “tools they need to make a difference on climate and health.” The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health has produced climate action posters for office waiting rooms about the ways healthy food systems, clean transportation, and green buildings and living spaces can reduce climate change and its impacts. And doctors like Stephanie Shults in Knoxville, Tennessee, have posted articles on “Preventing Pediatric Heat Stroke.”
“Climate change has certainly caused the temperatures to climb here in the U.S.,” she writes. “When temperatures are high this could increase your child’s risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke.” Her suggestions to parents include making an action plan when a heat wave strikes so you can be sure you and your children can get to a cool place with enough clean drinking water. Infants who are still breastfeeding should be given additional breast milk, especially if they are under six months old, Dr. Shults’ practice recommends.
“Greenhouse gas emissions have led to higher average temperatures globally and in the United States … accompanied by more frequent and intense days of extreme heat,” the study’s researchers conclude.
“The growing evidence that heat presents substantial risk to children underscores the need for more aggressive adaptation measures and suggests that continued climate change will have important implications for the health and well-being of children in the years ahead.”
You can find a complete report of the study and its results here.