Researchers have only scratched the surface of the complex effects climate change will have on children’s health and the economy, panelists said at a climate change forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The panel was part of a discussion titled, "The Social and Economic Costs of Climate Change on Children’s Health," organized by American University, the Children’s Environmental Health Network and the Wilson Center.
Panelists said the complex nature of the issue makes it difficult for researchers and government officials to quantify the cascading impact climate change will have on quality of life, household income, social justice and health conditions.
"Climate change is this whole new world," said Sylvia Brandt, an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "The thing that I find most disturbing is the interplay — the interconnected between all of this."
For example, climate change is expected both to exacerbate asthma in children and increase the prevalence of asthma, she added. Already, about 8 to 10 percent of children in the United States have asthma, but the number is likely to increase dramatically as a result of numerous environmental changes attributed to global warming.
Ragweed, a plant that can trigger allergy-related asthma, will have longer and more productive pollen seasons and could lead to a greater number of hospitalizations of children with asthma. At the same time, the number of days with ground-level ozone pollution is expected to rise. Increased levels of ozone have been connected to lung irritation and can be attributed to 10 to 20 percent of hospitalizations in the summer, according to U.S. EPA.
Growing numbers of extreme heat days can also affect a child’s susceptibility to asthma, said Brandt. Hotter days also are associated with lower birth weight and higher risk of pre-term labor, which are independent risk factors for developing asthma.
Costs ‘not being borne by the producer of the pollution’
Asthma is but one of many health conditions that will be affected by climate change, and children will be more directly affected, experts say. Studies suggest that climate change will increase the range of vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, malaria and dengue. Rising temperatures could raise the risk of heatstroke, and extreme weather like drought could lead to increased malnutrition, increased allergies and increased exposure to chemicals and toxins, according to the Children’s Environmental Health Network.
"Children are uniquely vulnerable for a number of reasons that are grounded in biology — pound for pound, they breathe in more air, they eat more food and drink more water," said Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at New York University’s School of Medicine. "They also have developing organ systems that are uniquely vulnerable to injury."
Every year, the cost of treating environmentally related illnesses in children is roughly $77 billion — accounting for about 3 percent of health care costs in the United States, according to Trasande. That price does not account for the price of parents staying home to take care of their child, over-the-counter drugs or the social charge of missed school days, panelists said.
"What we’re describing here on health effects in children are often externalities," Trasande said. "We have pollution happening, and then it’s affecting adversely children’s health and it’s affecting the function of families, and that is an economic cost that is ultimately not being borne by the producer of the pollution in the first place."
Further research is necessary to fully grasp the extent of the cascading economic impact of illness, but existing research suggests that family income is affected by illness — particularly chronic illnesses like asthma, which is a leading cause of absenteeism in the country. Children with asthma collectively miss between 10.5 million and 15 million school days annually, and children from low-income families miss the most school, Brandt said.
A study conducted by Brandt and colleagues at UMass found that 18 percent of caregivers in California dropped out of the workforce in some capacity because they had to stay home to take care of their asthmatic children. Upon returning to the workforce, if the caregiver was a woman, she was likely to be given a lower salary than a woman who had stayed in the workforce. The findings were not the same for men who temporarily left the workforce to care for their children.
Cracking down on school bus emissions
Another study by Brandt found that students with asthma had statistically significant lower grade-point averages in school than students without asthma — even at the college level. These factors have consequences for jobs and sources of income as children become adults.
"Student performance is an underrecognized cost," said Pat Breysse, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I think when you start looking at those costs, the effects of asthma and environmental diseases rapidly magnify and multiply."
Policies that look to mitigate climate change could significantly reduce health concerns, panelists said. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would reduce lung irritation and related illnesses. This could be achieved through a variety of channels, including electricity generated from renewable sources, more efficient vehicles and better public transportation systems.
At the community level, reducing the risk of asthma attacks could be as simple as creating regulations that forbid cars and school buses from idling in front of schools, or ensuring that schools are not built near highways, Brandt said.
Retrofitting and replacing old school buses so they emit less pollution could decrease the number of school absences by 14 million days, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.
"If you can start to demonstrate that we are paying the costs now, then the costs of regulation, the cost of behavioral change will start to pale in comparison," Brandt added. "I think that that’s the important thing — it’s not that we can chose to pay the cost of climate mitigation or not; it is that we are bearing the cost now, and we can either think about minimizing that, or not."