Gina McCarthy: Stop climate change to save kids

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 17, 2018

Children are among the most vulnerable to climate change, facing greater risks of asthma attacks and mental health problems as well as developmental delays and changes in their genetic makeup, Gina McCarthy warned yesterday.

“Climate change is not an equal opportunity killer; it actually focuses on our children and on our elderly, because they are the ones that are the most susceptible to the impacts of pollution,” said McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator under former President Obama.

She emphasized that climate change is not an elitist concern, but has implications for the most vulnerable populations, including low-income and minority populations.

“We need to make climate change personal,” McCarthy said. “What we want to talk about is ways of addressing pollution that is impacting our kids.”

She gave a keynote address at a side event of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco yesterday. She then moderated one of two panels on how children are affected by climate change.

While the public may be familiar with impacts like flooding and sea-level rise related to climate change, rising temperatures also put children at greater risks of asthma attacks and allergies. Exposure to air pollution in utero can have adverse effects on developing organs and can lead to premature birth, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, co-director of C-CHANGE at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“It is sort of shocking: Even before a child comes into this world, a substantial portion of their life is already determined,” he said.

A less recognized impact of climate change is the trauma to children from events like major storms and fires that can destroy homes and uproot families, according to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness.

“You are increasing the frequency of traumatic events, which make children more vulnerable,” she said.

Harris noted that toxic stress can increase the risk of illnesses like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. It can even change how a child’s genetic code is expressed. Her organization’s website,, offers pointers for how parents can identify children affected by toxic stress and ways they can mitigate its effects.

The panelists emphasized the importance of bringing greater public awareness of the health effects of climate change.

McCarthy recalled being surprised by people’s reactions to certain threats.

“I found something I really didn’t anticipate: If you say premature death, it’s a blank face. But if you say asthma attacks, people say, ‘What?'”

Bernstein said medical schools should teach medical residents about heat waves and how they can increase emergency room visits related to asthma. Another lesson related to heat waves is the danger of death they pose to patients who take medications that inhibit sweating or urination.

“Doctors need to know how it will affect their ability to do their job,” Bernstein said.

The American public can be successful at making local changes, said Dr. Kari Nadeau, director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University.

She explained how residents in Fresno, Calif., organized to replace diesel school buses after they saw asthma rates rise among their children. They were able to reduce incidents of asthma by as much as 50 percent in their community.

“I think we can all be instruments of change. Beyond politics, people are going to pay attention to things that affect their lives,” said Nadeau.