Climate change’s adverse effects on health start in the womb

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Rising temperatures around the world as a result of climate change are having a devastating effect on foetuses, babies and infants, studies have found.

Scientists from six different studies determined that climate change is causing – among other adverse outcomes – the increased risk of premature birth and increased hospitalisation of young children.

Climate change causing increased risk of premature birth

The separate studies have just been published in a special issue of the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology.

Professor Gregory Wellenius and professor Amelia Wesselink from the Boston University School of Public Health are guest editors for the journal. They said that a growing body of evidence indicates the ways in which extreme heat, hurricanes and wildfire smoke can increase the risk of pre-term birth.

Heatwaves linked to pre-term births

One of the studies found that pre-term births were 16% more likely in areas experiencing heatwaves. Researchers did this by looking at one million pregnant women between 2004 and 2015 in the high temperature region of New South Wales, Australia.

Similar findings were observed in a study that assessed the link between ambient heat and spontaneous pre-term birth between 2007-2011 in the hot climate of Harris Country, Texas. The day after mothers were exposed to heatwave temperatures, their risk of premature birth was 15%.

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Wildfires linked to problems in pregnancy

An accompanying study found that as the frequency and intensity of wildfires has increased dramatically over the past two decades in the western US, there’s been a 32% rise in a rare condition typically associated with air pollution among pregnant women. Foetal gastroschisis is an abdominal wall defect that is rare but “increasing in prevalence,” according to Wellenius and Wesselink.

Writing in the special edition of the journal, which looked at rising temperatures as well as wildfires and pollution on babies and foetuses, the professors and co-editors said:

The evidence is clear: climate hazards, particularly heat and air pollution, do adversely impact a wide range of reproductive, perinatal and paediatric health outcomes.

The expected pace of continued climate change and resulting impacts on our physical and mental health and wellbeing calls for decisive and immediate action on adaptation.

Mothers from more marginalised populations ‘at higher risk’

The professors added that the evidence also found that mothers from more marginalised populations are at much higher risk of being exposed to climate hazards. And they were also less resilient to the effects of these hazards due to systemic and structural oppression.

The professors continued:

Our climate has already changed profoundly due to human activity and these changes are broadly harmful to our health, with some communities and individuals affected much more than others. Reproductive justice is ‘…the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities’.

Failure to urgently address the reproductive, perinatal and paediatric health impacts of climate change will perpetuate and worsen reproductive injustices, wherein the most marginalised populations will be deprived of their ability to procreate and safely parent their children.

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