Shannon Hautamaki reluctantly decided to cancel the end-of-school events for her 5-year-old son, Ian. Despite her reservations, Ian’s severe asthma and multiple emergency room visits in the past two years made her concerned about the potential exacerbation of his symptoms due to the smoky environment. Consequently, after attending the picnic, Shannon enforced a strict home confinement for Ian. She increased his regular medications and administered nebulizer treatments while running air purifiers at maximum capacity until the air quality improved.
As medical professionals specializing in respiratory health and pediatrics, our primary concern last week was for young children, including those as young as Ian, as they are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of inhaling smoke from wildfires. Our biggest worry was for the millions of children in the country who have asthma but lack access to necessary prescription medications or a safe indoor environment to breathe in. The ongoing and increasingly frequent occurrence of severe air pollution caused by wildfire smoke is a significant factor that leads us to believe that, for children born today, climate change could be the most influential determinant of their health throughout their lives.
While there are undoubtedly urgent public health issues that impact children, such as gun violence, opioid addiction, and obesity, the health consequences of pollution from fossil fuels and climate change are relentless and build up over time. These factors not only pose a threat to children’s development but also exacerbate health disparities. The recent surge in devastating wildfires, intensified by rising temperatures and drought caused by global warming, serves as a prime example of the challenges they face. These wildfires emit substantial amounts of harmful substances, including soot, minuscule particles, and other toxic materials, further deteriorating air quality.
The health hazards associated with wildfire smoke extend well beyond the usual smoke from a regular campfire. According to a study, the impact of wildfire smoke on children’s respiratory health was estimated to be ten times more severe than the pollution they encounter on a daily basis, such as vehicle exhaust fumes.
The risk of hospitalization due to smoke exposure increases as the child’s age decreases. Our lungs, which continue developing until our early twenties, experience significant growth during the first few years of life. Children have a higher respiratory rate compared to adults in relation to their body size and often spend more time outdoors, leading to increased inhalation of polluted air.
The risks associated with smoke exposure can commence prior to birth and impact organs beyond the lungs. Studies have linked smoke exposure to increased rates of preterm birth and low birth weight. The effects of air pollution have even been detected in the brains and livers of developing fetuses, with doctors observing discolored placentas.
While emergency preparedness measures can assist in reducing smoke exposure, it is crucial to prioritize prevention. This involves discontinuing the use of fossil fuels, which contribute to dangerous global warming. Legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act supports the shift towards renewable energy. Urgency is paramount, as we must continue advocating for policymakers to understand the link between fossil fuels and adverse health effects. Implementing regulations, such as those aimed at controlling carbon emissions from power plants by the Environmental Protection Agency, can help mitigate the intensifying wildfires and heatwaves. We should maintain our focus on envisioning a better, healthier future for our children.
Although children are resilient, they remain exceptionally susceptible to the impacts of climate change. It is imperative that we prioritise their well-being and work towards creating positive change for their benefit.