Throughout middle and high school, I swam competitively for my Southern California club team. During fire seasons, there were weeks when our outdoor pools were completely closed due to extreme levels of smoke, ash and dust in the air and pool.

The track team wasn’t allowed to run outside, soccer practices were cancelled and my team was sent to train indoors until the ash settled. Switching practices to an enclosed setting drastically exacerbated many of my teammates’ asthma struggles. These problems were only further compounded by subpar air quality once we returned to outdoor training.

Georgia Reilly is pursuing a master's degree in public health at the Perelman School of Medicine
Georgia Reilly
Georgia Reilly is pursuing a master's degree in public health at the Perelman School of Medicine

Unfortunately, wildfires such as these are becoming increasingly intense and frequent due to changing weather patterns, which many scientists have attributed to climate change.

My experience is just a small piece of the climate change story. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the release of high quantities of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels. These gases trap an additional layer of heat in Earth’s lower atmosphere, warming the global climate by 0.85 degrees centigrade over the last 130 years.

While much of the conversation around the adverse effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and changing rain patterns, have centered on the potential economic fallout, research suggests that climate change could also have drastic impact on our children’s health. Children are especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change as their bodies are continuing to grow and they experience dependency on both their caregivers and environment. In particular, climate change has the potential to amplify the harm from a condition that already plagues children in communities everywhere: asthma. Given my own experience and interest in public health, this has been a growing concern of mine so I wanted to further delve into the consequences of climate change on children’s asthma.

The onset of climate change negatively impacts the air quality we all breathe. Plants grow faster with the release of high quantities of carbon dioxide, meaning that many plants that trigger allergies like ragweed, birth and oak trees, and poison ivy will more aggressively disperse common allergens.

Additionally, research reveals the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s, leading to more intense and frequent wildfires like I personally witnessed. These changing weather patterns increase the levels of pollution, dust and smoke in the air, further worsening the impact of severe pollen seasons on children’s asthma. For example, with the most recent string of California wildfires, some counties reported kids visiting the emergency department for asthma at nearly twice the standard rate. As the problem of children’s asthma continues to grow, evidence-based public health solutions are fundamentally necessary to tackle the alarming numbers.

Roughly six million children in the U.S. currently struggle with asthma, and of those, two million children with asthma live in areas of the country with unhealthy ozone levels. Experts assert that climate change will only continue to make children’s asthma harder to manage. With one in four children in West Philadelphia currently struggling with asthma, how many more children could be affected if air quality continues to worsen?

Keeping these staggering statistics in mind, Philadelphia recently released its yearly Health of the City Report, citing asthma as the most common chronic medical condition for children. In addition to 25 percent of children living in high risk neighborhoods having asthma, those from low-income minority communities are two to three times more likely to go to the emergency department and four to five times more likely to die from the disease. In this way, the effects of ground-level ozone caused by climate change are disproportionately impacting children, particularly children of color living in urban zones. Unhealthy pollution spikes are mirrored by increased rates of children’s emergency room visits and asthma related hospitalizations. According to a recent policy brief from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, we know that there are evidence-based strategies to reduce repeat hospital visits for children with asthma—however, these measures can only go so far when climate change and poor air quality remain the underlying issues.

Dust mites, mold, tobacco smoke, cockroaches, and now climate change all contribute to triggering asthma attacks. Researchers and physicians have highlighted ways in which healthier housing can help improve pediatric asthma by improving the individual’s home environment. With Earth as our only home, how can we work to ameliorate the damaging impact carbon dioxide levels and ground level ozone have on children’s health?

Since children are the most vulnerable population to these dangers, it is imperative for the City of Philadelphia to prioritize the reduction of greenhouse emissions through better transport, food and energy-use choices. A recent study even shows that while cutting carbon emissions initally seems expensive, the benefits to human health prove the measures economically sound. Depending on the level of air quality policies adopted, the health benefits arising from cleaner air could result in trillions of dollars saved annually and the protection of children’s lives. As the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “failure to take prompt, substantive action is dangerous for all children. There needs to be a paradigm shift and changes in energy consumption, as well as active support by pediatricians.”

Without the coordinated changes of emission laws and individual behaviors to reduce carbon levels, my dangerous experience with climate change will only become standard for future generations. What price tag or lifestyle convenience are we holding over our children’s ability to breathe?

Georgia Reilly recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the Perelman School of Medicine.