Rising global temperatures as a result of climate change are having devastating effects on fetuses, babies and young children, studies have found.
Scientists from six different studies found that climate change is causing the increased risk of preterm birth, increased hospitalizations of young children and weight gain in babies, among other negative effects.
The separate studies have just been published in a special issue of the journal Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology.
The journal’s guest editors, Professor Gregory Wellenius and Professor Amelia Wesselink of the Boston University School of Public Health, said growing evidence points to how extreme heat, hurricanes and wildfire smoke can increase the risk of preterm birth.
One of the studies found that areas with heat waves were 16% more likely to have preterm births. The researchers did this by studying one million pregnant women in the high-temperature region of New South Wales, Australia, between 2004 and 2015.
Similar results were observed in a study examining the association between ambient heat and spontaneous preterm birth between 2007 and 2011 in the hot climate of Harris Country, Texas. The day after mothers were exposed to heat waves, their risk of preterm birth was 15%.
Another study in the journal, which analyzed 200,000 births in Israel, found links between high temperature and weight gain in the first year of life. Of the 20% exposed to the nighttime temperature, 5% had a higher risk of rapid weight gain.
A companion study found that as the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the western United States has increased dramatically over the past two decades, a rare condition typically associated with air pollution in pregnant women has increased by 32%. Fetal gastroschisis is an abdominal wall defect that is rare but “increasing in prevalence” according to Prof. Wellenius and Prof. Wesselink.
In the journal’s special issue, which looked at rising temperatures and wildfires and pollution affecting babies and fetuses, the professors and co-editors said: “The evidence is clear: climate hazards, particularly heat and air pollution, negatively impact a wide range of impacts on reproductive, perinatal and pediatric health.
“The expected pace of ongoing climate change and the resulting impacts on our physical and mental health and well-being require decisive and immediate action to adapt.”
The professors added that the evidence also found that mothers from more marginalized populations were at much higher risk of exposure to climate hazards, and that they were also less resilient to the effects of those hazards due to systematic and structural oppression.
They continued: “Our climate has already changed profoundly as a result of human activity, and these changes are broadly detrimental to our health, with some communities and individuals being affected much more than others. Reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, to have children, not to have children, and to raise the children we do have in safe and sustainable communities.”
“Unless urgently addressing the impacts of climate change on reproductive, perinatal and pediatric health, reproductive injustices will perpetuate and worsen, depriving the most marginalized populations of their ability to father and safely raise their children.”