PROTECT Investigator Gredia Huerta-Montañez Discusses the Intersection of Children’s Health and Climate Change in Editorial for JAMA Pediatrics

Jan 5, 2023 | Human Subjects & Sampling Core, PROTECT Team

An editorial written by ECHO and PROTECT investigator Dr. Gredia Huerta-Montañez and Dr. Aaron Bernstein was published in JAMA Pediatrics in November 2022. The editorial analyzes the intersection of children’s health and climate change, describes experiences from Puerto Rico on how climate change affects children, and presents a path forward.

Drs. Huerta-Montañez and Bernstein argue that one of the groups most affected by the climate crisis is children, especially those from lower-wealth communities. This group bears a large brunt of the problems caused by hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, but they have little control over the emissions that worsen those issues. This unjust brunt should push those who care for children to be concerned about climate action and health equity.

The way climate change hurts children’s welfare is seen in the aftermaths of hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Fiona caused power outages for many on the island in late 2022, which is dire for children who need electricity for medical equipment, such as ventilators or refrigerated vaccines. After the destruction of Hurricane Maria in 2017, many families became climate migrants, which can separate children from their extended families and culture. This can set the stage for adverse childhood events that increase the risk of future serious health burdens. Both hurricanes also left many without safe drinking water, intensifying the already prevalent issue of child food insecurity. The use of generators after these events comes with issues as well, as many of them burn fuels that pollute the air and harm developing brains and lungs, and increase the risk and spread of airborne illnesses.

Photo credit: Alejandro Granadillo/AP

What Puerto Rico has experienced is not insular. More people today experience power outages of at least one hour, and outages caused by extreme weather events have tripled in duration from 2003 to 2020. Rates of food insecurity in many US counties are on par with those of Puerto Rico. Children throughout the continental US have also been forced to leave their homes following extreme weather events just as children in Puerto Rico have. Issues like Superfund sites and fossil fuel use continue to exacerbate these problems and intensify the challenges facing children, such as worsening asthma, ear infections, brain development, and pregnancy outcomes.

Fortunately, there are steps being taken to create a better future for children. The recent Inflation Reduction Act sets out to have 40% of energy come from renewables and storage by 2030. However, setting the goal is not enough. As Drs. Huerta-Montañez and Bernstein point out, Puerto Rico residents have experienced many instances of government mismanagement before. State and local government competence is necessary for these goals to become reality.

Photo credit: Randy Brown/NBC News

Health care professionals can also play a role in building a better future for children, and combatting the climate despair and anxiety many children currently face. A 2021 study showed that 1 in 5 US young adults feels that climate change negatively affects their everyday life and functioning. Health care professionals that work with children can use their work to elevate these concerns and help deliver positive messages about climate action. Beyond positive messages, professionals can act and push their health systems to the decarbonization path, which has been successful in parts of Puerto Rico. Following Hurricane Maria, many health clinics rebuilt with solar panels. This reduced the clinics’ dependence on fossil fuels, and enabled the clinics to operate during subsequent island-wide power outages. By taking steps now, adults can demonstrate their care for children and make their future healthier and equitable.

You can read the full editorial here.