Infants At Risk for Long-Term Health Issues from Climate Change

BY ON April 8, 2019

pregnant woman

As I type this, I’m sitting in the wake of the most random 80 mph wind and rainstorm here in North Texas. Small grounded planes at a local airport were torn apart. My husband saw the sky light up green, and when I drove to the store neighborhood trampolines had flown through backyard fences.

While Texas weather is slowly transforming to the unbearable heat that takes up about 20 hours of late spring, summer, and early fall days, it’s no surprise the rise of these “random” extreme storms are linked to climate change and heat-related health issues. These are the days “they” warn pregnant women about. “Stay out of the heat near the end of your pregnancy. The summer time is the worst time to experience your last trimester!”

Extreme Weather Causes Physical and Mental Stress

Researchers found that late summer pregnancies are not the only way heat can negatively impact the health of a pregnant woman and her unborn child.

Women who experience the first critical 3-8 weeks of their pregnancy during the extreme heat of summer are more likely to give birth to a child with a Congenital Heart Disease (CHD). Climate change has a direct impact on the higher temperatures that contribute to infant CHD. In Texas, a projected 34% rise in heart malformations and a projected 35% rise in issues resulting from a hole in the heart are projected to be a trend for newborn birth defect statistics.

Pregnant women who survive a natural disaster are more likely to give birth to a child who has been heavily impacted by stress hormones. While a mother can endure the stress, when it is passed on to the fetus, the effects on the baby are amplified. The ramifications of stress on the fetus are seen as early on as the infant stage of a child’s life.

A study of the impacts of maternal stress and depression on fetal development, and long-term psychological outcomes for infants,” was conducted in New York starting in 2009. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy was the cause of much stress for pregnant women. The hurricane provided a rare look into how climate change related disasters invoke stressors that negatively impact pregnant women. The results were consistent – the extreme levels of stress caused by the natural disaster showed up as prenatal depression in some women. Researchers found that six months postpartum, the women who gave birth to their children after the hurricane reported the reactions and behaviors of their babies. “They showed higher rates of distress and lower rates of pleasure seeking than babies born before the storm. In other words, living through the storm amplified the impacts of existing prenatal depression.”

Environmental Justice Factors

Environmental injustices in the midst of natural disasters also increase the negative health impacts of the events. Women of color and women from low-income households were found to have higher levels of prenatal depression. Without the means to recover from the devastation as quickly, or at all, as their more affluent and white counterparts, the toll of environmental injustice takes hold and stays longer. A destroyed home can be rebuilt for those with access to insurance, for people who own their own home. For lower income mothers who rent, a destroyed apartment unit could turn into years of displacement, and thus years of stress, anxiety, and depression. It doesn’t help that even FEMA favors the wealthy in their aid and assistance, as reported by NPR.

Climate change impacts each of us in ways that we can’t always see. And it can take a toll on those who haven’t even had a chance to take their first breath of air yet. This informative study helps us understand the risk to infants and moms. Now it’s up to our elected-officials to do a better a job providing the resources to cope with the climate crisis.

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TOPICS: African-American Community, Children's Health, Climate Change, Motherhood, Social Justice, Texas