Addressing the Health Effects of Climate Change

Smoke from a wildfire rising through trees

This summer has been marked by climate crises. Wildfires raged in Canada, with smoke spreading into the United States and parts of Europe. The world experienced the hottest July on record. Tragically, drought conditions and high winds from Hurricane Dora exacerbated the spread of wildfires on Maui, resulting in the deadliest wildfire disaster in modern U.S. history. A rare tropical storm hit California, bringing high rainfalls and flooding.

The effects of climate change on health are wide-ranging, from causing injuries and other medical concerns to disrupting vital supply chains. The NIH-wide Climate Change and Health Initiative aims to reduce the health threats posed by climate change across the lifespan and build health resilience, especially among disproportionately affected populations. NICHD is represented on the executive and steering committees of this initiative, which currently has open funding opportunities for research addressing the impact of climate change on health and well-being over the life course and planning to support the development of climate change and health research centers.

The health effects of climate change are particularly pronounced for many of NICHD’s populations of interest. For example, climate and environmental changes can affect many stages of a woman’s reproductive life, impacting the health of future generations. Growing evidence suggests that heat stress negatively influences fetal growth and pregnancy outcomes, as two recent studies from NICHD’s Global Network for Women’s and Children’s Health help illustrate. One study, which evaluated more than 120,000 pregnant women in India and Pakistan, found a higher incidence of pregnancy-related high blood pressure, severe preeclampsia, preterm birth, and low birth weight with greater temperatures. Another study, conducted in Pakistan, found that exposure to excessive heat in early pregnancy was linked to lower infant lengths and head circumferences at birth. The findings also suggest that nutritional supplementation early in pregnancy may help offset some of the effects of heat stress.  

Many other NICHD-funded projects focus on science that addresses consequences of climate change. For example, the increasing frequency of wildfires places more people at risk of sustaining burns. NICHD funds a range of burn research, including projects to evaluate a smartphone app that facilitates at-home burn care and to understand immune problems resulting from pediatric burn injury, with the goal of advancing toward personalized treatments. Similarly, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis can increase the risk of drowning. NICHD supports a broad portfolio of drowning research and has issued a Notice of Special Interest to encourage and facilitate scientific discovery for drowning prevention.

Climate events such as extreme heat and natural disasters often cause upticks in emergency department visits. A study funded in part by NICHD found that emergency departments with the highest levels of coordination of health care, personnel, procedures, and medical equipment needed to care for ill and injured children have far higher rates of survival than hospitals with low readiness. A new NICHD-supported project is assessing readiness factors that improve the short- and long-term survival of children who visit emergency departments. Other researchers seek to evaluate the feasibility of an ambulance-based teleconsultation process and determine its effect on the short-term health outcomes of acutely ill children.      

In addition to their direct effects on human health, climate change and natural disasters can disrupt critical systems such as the food supply. Both a general lack of food and a lack of nutritious food can harm a person’s health in numerous ways, from slowing physical and cognitive development to increasing the risk for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cancer. NICHD’s new Agriculture and Diet: Value Added for Nutrition, Translation, and Adaptation in a Global Ecology (ADVANTAGE) project seeks to enhance understanding of the intersection of food systems, diet, nutrition, and health in a changing environment. ADVANTAGE aims to determine what we know and what we do not know about these relationships and develop an implementable research agenda to address compelling needs.

Acute and chronic climate-related stresses will continue to affect people around the globe in the years to come. NICHD is committed to supporting scientific research to reduce climate-related health threats among its populations of interest—children, people of reproductive age, and people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

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