Climate change 'is damaging the health of the world's children'

Children around the world are already suffering ill health because of climate change, major report warns as doctors demand world leaders take action to rescue the environment

  • Researchers said carbon emissions must be cut by 7.4 per cent per year
  • They said pollution is already contributing to the deaths of 2.9m people annually
  • Crop yields are falling and could begin to leave children without enough food
  • A total of 69 scientists from 35 global institutions put their names to the warning
  • It comes as smog clogs Indian cities and wildfires are raging in Australia 

Children around the world are already suffering ill health because of climate change, scientists have warned.

A major report published today in prestigious medical journal The Lancet has called on world leaders to get on with taking action to rescue the environment.

Burning diesel and coal is giving children lung diseases, wildfires are triggering asthma and shrinking harvests are leaving many without enough food.

Unless CO2 emissions are cut by 7.4 per cent per year for the next 31 years, experts warn, the health of the world’s next generation is at risk, experts fear.

Researchers from some 35 global institutions pulled together existing evidence of health damages to warn the world ‘cannot afford this level of disengagement’ and that children stand to lose the most to a changing climate.

Young men in India are pictured playing football in New Delhi this week, where smog from burning fossil fuels is so thick it limits visibility

‘Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate,’ said Dr Nick Watts, director of the Lancet Countdown climate change think-tank.

‘Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants.

‘The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.

‘Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.’

The Lancet Countdown report split the climate change effect into various categories including crop yields, air pollution and temperature rises.

Toxic air from fossil fuel fumes is already killing people and coal alone is estimated to have contributed to more than a million premature deaths in 2016.

PM2.5, one of the finest types of particles emitted by burning fossil fuels, is linked to around 2.9million premature deaths each year worldwide.  

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: ‘Our young people are already breathing health-damaging toxic air. This report warns the effects on their still-developing lungs will only get worse as the Earth gets hotter.

‘Other vulnerable people, like those with a lung condition, also look set to see their conditions worsen as extreme weather events like heatwaves become ever more common.’ 

And while the pollution directly affects people’s health when they breathe it in, it also speeds up global warming which will cause secondary effects.

Carbon dioxide emissions are still rising – by 2.6 per cent between 2016 and 2018 – despite governments and organisations pledging to cut them down. 

The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016 by 174 nation states and the European Union, committed leaders all over the world to limit the global temperature rise to less than 36°F (2°C). 

But the paper’s 69 researchers said ‘business as usual’ would result in a 39°F (4°C) global temperature rise by the year 2100.

Changing temperatures and rainfall are reducing crop yields which will leave many without enough food, especially in poorer countries which are less able to import.

Catastrophic bush fires are currently burning in Australia, leading to evacuations. Experts say events like these will become more common as the Earth’s temperature continues to rise

A firefighter is pictured dousing grass in New South Wales, Australia, where bush fires are burning farmland and forcing people out of their homes


Thousands of the world’s greatest scientists have joined together to declare that ‘untold human suffering’ is unavoidable without deep and lasting shifts in human activities.

An alliance of more than 11,000 scientists signed a paper which declared the climate emergency and set out actions humans should take.

To limit the damage caused by humans’ greenhouse gas emissions the paper called for control of the global population, which is growing by 200,000 people a day. 

 The global group was led by William J. Ripple professor of ecology at Oregon State University and researcher Christopher Wolf. 

Professor Ripple said: ‘Despite 40 years of major global negotiations, we have continued to conduct business as usual and have failed to address this crisis.

‘Climate change has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected.’

The young are among the most vulnerable to malnutrition and may have stunted growth, weak immune systems or developmental problems, the report said.

Over the past 30 years yield potentials – how much food a single plant can produce – for maize, winter wheat, soy and rice have fallen by 4.25 per cent on average. 

Higher temperatures reduce crop yields by dehydrating the plants faster as water evaporates out of their leaves faster and out of the soil, meaning they grow slower.

And hotter weather will add to the burden of illness in the forms of infections and extreme weather events, warned the Lancet Countdown report.

Higher average temperatures make ideal conditions for bacteria and fungi to thrive in, which can make infection more likely. The report said 2018 was the ‘second most suitable year on record’ for the spread of diarrhoea-causing bacteria.

Extreme weather will cause wildfires, droughts and flooding which, as well as posing immediate dangers, will contribute to homelessness and asthma as smoke from fires irritates people’s lungs. 

The researchers’ warning comes as 16-year-old Greta Thunberg continues to be headline news after sparking worldwide protests this year with her no-nonsense criticism of world leader’s inaction on climate change. 

‘This year, the accelerating impacts of climate change have become clearer than ever’, said Professor Hugh Montgomery, from University College London.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has become a international sensation this year as she takes governments around the world to task over the inaction on climate change

Greta Thunberg, 16, will sail back from North America to Portugal after a high profile visit to the States. The environmental protestor sailed there from Sweden and travelled around by train while she was in the country

‘The highest recorded temperatures in Western Europe and wildfires in Siberia, Queensland, and California triggered asthma, respiratory infections and heat stroke.

‘Our children recognize this climate emergency and demand action to protect them. We must listen, and respond.’

Editor-in-chief of the Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, added: ‘The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation.

‘With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can’t afford this level of disengagement.

‘The clinical, global health and research community needs to come together now and challenge our international leaders to protect the imminent threat to childhood and lifelong health.’ 


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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