While some of the most obvious impacts of Earth’s changing climate are rising water levels, extreme temperatures and other major weather events, this global problem has also proven to be a public health crisis for vulnerable populations.
And children are among the most endangered.
Rising temperatures, air pollution and extreme precipitation have led to heat-related deaths, asthma and even waterborne illness in children. And health experts say these kinds of illnesses are likely to get worse over the next decade.
Temperatures are rising due to climate change. High temperatures for all seasons in Charleston have risen steadily over the past 100 years.
Exposure to high temperatures can cause heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke, exhaustion and skin rashes, medical experts say.
dr. Hayley Guilkey, a pediatrician and founder of the SC Health Professionals for Climate Action organization, said the elderly are most at risk for heat illness, but children — especially student athletes and infants — are also at increased risk.
According to Guilkey, heat illness is the leading cause of death for high school athletes. She said more than 9,000 heat illnesses are reported among this group each year, and they account for more than a third of emergency room visits in the country.
Some of these illnesses, such as dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, are now peaking.
“We see them most often in August, when the sports kick off in the preseason, kids haven’t necessarily trained in the summer and it’s extremely hot,” Guilkey said earlier in a webinar on children’s health and climate change from the United States. Medical University of South Carolina. month.
In 2018, the SC High School League and SC Independent Schools Association passed regulations requiring teams to monitor heat during outdoor activities with a wet-bulb thermometer. The device takes into account air temperature, humidity and wind to produce a reading that determines how much and how long teams can practice.
If the thermometer reads 92.1 or higher, all outdoor activities should be canceled, according to an earlier Post and Courier report.
A child’s immature thermoregulation, high metabolic rate and dependence on caregivers are some of the factors that make them more at risk for heat illness.
Right now, infants suffer the second highest rate of heat-related deaths, after the elderly, and some studies predict they will experience the greatest increase in death rates due to rising global temperatures, Guilkey said.
Just last year, she saw firsthand the effects heat can have on a baby. During the webinar, she told the story of a child who drove around in a car without air conditioning in the middle of the summer. The child developed heat illness and dehydration and had to be hospitalized.
“Luckily, that baby has made a full recovery, but it’s still something scary and something we’re concerned about,” Guilkey said.
Data from the SC State Climatology Office shows that from 1938 to 2020, Charleston International Airport saw an average of 57 days a year with temperatures over 90 degrees. As of August 18, there have been 32 days of 90-degree weather since early May, eight of which have been recorded this month alone, at the airport.
Researchers and volunteers set out last month to monitor heat and humidity in the city on one of the hottest days of the year, July 31. It won’t be until the fall before an analysis of the heat-mapping project is released for the most vulnerable parts of Charleston, but scientists and medical experts already know that rising temperatures are taking their toll on humans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said staying cool, hydrated and informed are some of the best tips for beating heat-related illness.
dr. Scott Curtis, director of Lt. Col. James B. Near Jr. Center for Climate Studies at The Citadel, said air quality declines as temperatures rise. On very hot days, especially those that stand still, there is not much airflow.
“In an urban environment with a lot of traffic and things like that, and pollutants, that can cause days with a lot of ozone,” Curtis said.
Ozone is a gas made up of oxygen. But at ground level, it can be a harmful air pollutant because of its effects on people and the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Ozone is one of the main ingredients in smog, and car exhaust helps create it. It degrades the protective layer of the planet’s upper atmosphere from some solar radiation.
On the West Coast in places like California, smoke from wildfires is a major source of air pollution.
Guilkey said poor air quality affects lung development in children and exacerbates asthma and other respiratory problems.
“With higher minute ventilation — that’s how fast they breathe and how much air they breathe — this exposes them (children) to higher doses of air pollutants like ozone,” Guilkey said.
A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that an effort to reduce traffic in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics could have affected ozone levels. During that year’s Olympics, ozone concentrations were about 30 percent lower than four weeks earlier.
Most importantly, Guilkey said it led to a more than 40 percent decrease in emergency room visits for children with asthma.
Water-related infections are exacerbated by climate change, mainly due to an increase in extreme precipitation events.
Data from the State Climatology Office shows that at the North Charleston airport, precipitation of at least 2 inches is recorded only about four days a year. These are considered heavy precipitation events. So far this year, there have been only two days when the airport’s gauge recorded at least 2 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. But in July, rainfall exceeded the airport average of 6.60 inches.
Particularly in Charleston, heavy rainfall can lead to rising water levels and flooding. This water is full of contaminants and even fecal matter that contains bacteria, viruses and parasites that can make people sick.
“And when you’re talking about kids, you know, they’re going to play with that stuff,” Curtis said.
Adults have also been seen during the Charleston floods.
The CDC said contaminants in water can lead to reproductive problems, neurological disorders and gastrointestinal disorders. According to the World Health Organization, diarrheal diseases are the second most common cause of death in children under the age of 5 worldwide.
Extreme rainfall creates a flushing mechanism for everything on the ground. It often flushes pollution into water bodies, water systems and estuaries. And a polluted water source can mean a shortage of clean drinking water.
There are billions of people around the world who lack access to safe drinking water, putting them at greater risk of waterborne diseases.
Guilkey said that in North America, most waterborne disease outbreaks occur after extreme rainfall events. About 7.3 million Americans get sick each year from waterborne diseases, according to the CDC.
Many of the climate solutions needed to protect the earth can also make people healthier. For example, reducing greenhouse gases does not only focus on climate change. But considering more efficient options such as cycling instead of driving reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, Guilkey said.
And while long-term exposure to nature can increase life satisfaction, outdoor green spaces are often cooler than city blocks and can prevent flooding.
Individual action is important, but large-scale, aggressive policies can help mitigate climate change, Guilkey said. And creative solutions can help people adapt to the changing climate.