How fossil fuel use threatens kids’ health

Pollution and climate impacts of burning coal, oil and gas take a high toll, globally, on child health
Oct 25, 2016 — 7:00 am EST

Smokestacks spew emissions that can foster global warming and harm human health. Kids are at highest risk, a new report warns.


The burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — creates pollution that not only can harm health but also foster climate change. Together these impacts pose an outsize risk to children, studies show. Their data point to a growing need for society to better protect kids. That’s the conclusion of a new report.

It was prepared by Frederica Perera. She is a leading expert on health at Columbia University, in New York City, where she runs the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. She and her colleagues have been studying the health effects of pollution and stress. Their findings have shown, again and again, that both can produce measurable harm to children.

Youngsters who live in poor households and those of color tend to face an especially high risk of breathing polluted air and encountering stress, her team has shown. What kind of stress? It might be the anxiety of not always having enough food to eat. Stress also can develop when children must move because their parents have lost their homes or jobs. Or it can develop in any number of other ways.

Perera’s new report is what’s known as a review paper. It goes beyond her own work to bring together related findings from research teams around the world.

Journals often commission review papers to investigate — and then highlight — emerging trends that may not be obvious from reading only one or two studies. The data highlighted in a review paper may not be brand new. The trends it describes, however, can be. Moreover, examining work from many research teams may strengthen — or weaken — associations that link a cause to particular effects in just a few studies.

For her new review, Perera drew from roughly seven dozen papers and reports. Most were published during the past 10 years. The assessment that she wove from them was published June 21 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Children under age five make up only 10 percent of the world’s population, the paper notes. But they suffer an estimated 40 percent of all environment-linked disease. That’s according to the World Health Organization, or WHO, which is a part of the United Nations. What’s more, WHO reports, children are affected by about 88 percent of the diseases that have been linked to climate change. Poor children — living in both rich countries and poor ones — suffer most, Perera notes.

child pollution
In some places, kids and adults try to avoid the harmful effects of air pollution by wearing masks. It does not, however, filter out most of the especially harmful pollutants: toxic gases and ultrafine particles.

Kids have not been enough of a focus, Perera tells Science News for Students. That is true, she says, “even though children suffer most of the impacts from environmental pollution and also from climate change.”

Government leaders and health experts have discussed climate change and the health impacts of these pollutants in the past, she notes. But those conversations have usually talked about each pollutant separately. Given their impacts, she says, “They should be considered as a whole.”

Why children face special risks

The burning of fossil fuels by vehicles, power plants, factories and even homes spews particles and gases into the air. The people most vulnerable from breathing them tend to be the youngest, Perera argues — children.

Here’s why. The immune system helps defend the body against infections and poisons, such as toxic chemicals. But in infants and children, the immune system has not yet finished developing. This means that the body is not fully protected from impacts such as breathing irritating or toxic pollutants, Perera explains.

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that fossil-fuel pollutants, including hydrocarbon compounds, can impair health. They can even affect a child’s brain.

“Air pollution is a risk factor for various developmental delays,” Perera points out. By this she means that children exposed to this pollution may learn more slowly. They also may struggle to cope with stress. Pollution exposures may even lower a child’s IQ or lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Taken together, these impacts can reduce a child’s ability to learn and to do well in school, she says.

One thing that makes a child’s brain so sensitive is that it is growing and changing rapidly. If a pollutant hits cells when it’s time for them to morph into something new, they might not do so correctly. Or they might not change on time.

A trio of studies from Europe, California and China found evidence this might be happening. They linked air pollution with the risk that babies would be born too soon and underweight. Babies that enter the world prematurely often are not fully developed. That ups their risk of disease and death. Babies born too small can face a lifelong elevated risk of health impacts. Such risks include heart disease.

The brain directs the activities of cells and organs throughout the body. So messing up its wiring when it is developing could change how almost any part of the body might function. That’s why early-life exposures to pollution are so risky, notes Perera. Indeed, she points out, one of her team’s 2009 studies showed that air pollution can harm a child even before it’s born. Babies whose moms breathed in large amounts of urban air pollution during pregnancy tended to score lower on IQ tests.

LA smog
In cities such as Los Angeles, Calif., air pollution known as smog can make it difficult for people — especially children — to breathe. It also can trigger health problems such as asthma.

Older children also can face risks from inhaling these pollutants. One Spanish study published in April, for instance, linked exposure to air pollution from traffic with behavior problems and with learning difficulties.

Then there are pollution's effects on the lungs. Studies show that inhaling fossil-fuel pollution can cause or worsen childhood breathing diseases. These include asthma and bronchitis. The science of how that can happen is known. But relatively new data now show that this asthma is affecting a greater share of American children than adults. That’s according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

And asthma, a condition that makes it hard to fully inhale, is not just a U.S. problem. Asthma has been increasing in prevalence. Today, it is at an all-time high worldwide. In fact, it has become the most common non-infectious disease among children anywhere, reports WHO.

“Lifetime exposure [to pollution] begins in childhood,” says Patrick Kinney. He’s an environmental health scientist, also at Columbia. He is especially concerned about a child’s exposure to motor-vehicle exhaust. Those pollutants spew into “the street near people,” directly where they breathe, he notes.


Other costs of this pollution on climate and health

Fossil-fuel burning contributes to the build-up of carbon dioxide. It’s one of the so-called greenhouse gases. In the atmosphere, this CO2 can trap the sun’s heat, leading to global warming. A number of recent studies have linked hotter air temperatures to an increase in diseases of the lungs and heart. But global warming also is boosting the spread of some infectious diseases. These range from malaria to chikungunya.

Kinney says it’s important to remember that fossil-fuel emissions contribute to both illness and climate change, and that children are having these health problems now. Warmer temperatures help transform fossil-fuel pollution into smoggy ozone. Inhaling ozone can irritate the lungs. In some people, it can even cause trouble breathing, especially for children with asthma.

Earth’s rising temperatures have also been triggering an increase in extreme weather. These droughts, intense storms, flooding and wildfires can pose their own serious health impacts. They can damage homes, for instance. They can uproot families. Sometimes their impacts lead to food shortages. Taken together, these threats can lead to sickness, injuries and anxiety. And once again, children tend to suffer most from these events. The brain and mental-health problems that kids suffer may “play out over the whole life of the child,” Perera observes.

sheep drought
Drought can make things difficult for farmers, who may not have enough food or water for their animals. This can make some foods more expensive or even unavailable.

Her review paper also notes the high financial cost of health problems that can trace to fossil-fuel burning. She cited a 2015 WHO report citing health costs of urban air pollution in Europe alone at an estimated $1.6 trillion. Those costs, it noted, were for premature deaths and disease in just one year: 2010. By now, yearly costs are likely much higher. Stopping such pollutant emissions would cut those health-care costs enormously, writes Perera.

Understanding these impacts of pollution and climate change is important for doctors, especially those treating children, says Perry Sheffield. She is a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Icahn School of Medicine. It’s in New York City. “As our climate is now changing, doctors and nurses have an added role to play,” she says. They will have to help people understand that old risks — heat waves, pollution alerts and mosquito bites — may all become riskier in a warmer world.

The science, Perera concludes, indicates strongly that getting energy from sources other than fossil-fuel burning may provide huge benefits to health and the environment. Already, her review notes, there are powerful scientific and economic reasons for reducing the burning of fossil fuels — or at least the pollutants due to burning fossil fuels. A prime motivation, her report says, should be protecting society’s most vulnerable group — children.

Power Words

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anxiety     (adj. anxious) A nervous or almost fearful reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

asthma     A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. It is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

carbon dioxide (or CO2)    A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter (including fossil fuels like oil or gas) is burned. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC)     An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC is charged with protecting public health and safety by working to control and prevent disease, injury and disabilities. It does this by investigating disease outbreaks, tracking exposures by Americans to infections and toxic chemicals, and regularly surveying diet and other habits among a representative cross-section of all Americans.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chikungunya     A tropical disease that has been crippling large numbers of people in Africa and Asia. It’s caused by a virus that is spread by mosquitoes. It recently has been spreading widely throughout warm nations. More than 3 million people have suffered through its initial flu-like symptoms. A large share may also go on to develop intense pain in their muscles and joints that can last months to years. There is no cure or vaccine.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

combustion     (adj. combustible ) The process of burning.

compound     (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed from two or more chemical elements united in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

control     A part of an experiment where there is no change from normal conditions. The control is essential to scientific experiments. It shows that any new effect is likely due only to the part of the test that a researcher has altered. For example, if scientists were testing different types of fertilizer in a garden, they would want one section of it to remain unfertilized, as the control. Its area would show how plants in this garden grow under normal conditions. And that give scientists something against which they can compare their experimental data.

development     (in biology) The changes an organism undergoes from conception through adulthood. Those changes often involve chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.

disorder     (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.

drought     An extended period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.

economics    (adj. economic) The social science that deals with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services and with the theory and management of economies or economic systems. A person who studies economics is an economist.

environmental health     A research field that focuses on measuring the effects of pollutants and other factors in the environment on the health of people, wildlife or ecosystems.

equation      In mathematics, the statement that two quantities are equal. In geometry, equations are often used to determine the shape of a curve or surface.

exhaust     (in engineering) The gases and fine particles emitted — often at high speed and/or pressure — by combustion (burning) or by the heating of air. Exhaust gases are usually a form of waste.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

fossil fuel     Any fuel — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that has developed in the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

greenhouse     A light-filled structure, often with windows serving as walls and ceiling materials, in which plants are grown. It provides a controlled environment in which set amounts of water, humidity and nutrients can be applied — and pests can be prevented entry.

hydrocarbons     Any of a range of large molecules created by chemically bound carbon and hydrogen atoms. Crude oil, for example, is a naturally occurring mix of many hydrocarbons.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

impair     (n. impairment) To damage or weaken in some way.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some sort of germ.

infectious     An adjective that describes a type of germ that can be transmitted to people, animals or other living things.

IQ     (or intelligence quotient) A number representing a person’s reasoning ability. It’s determined by dividing a person’s score on a special test by his or her age, then multiplying by 100.

journal     (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.

link     A connection between two people or things.

malaria     A disease caused by a parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, largely in tropical and subtropical regions.

organ     (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that interprets nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

ozone     A colorless gas that forms high in the atmosphere and at ground level. When it forms at Earth’s surface, ozone is a pollutant that irritates eyes and lungs. It is also a major ingredient of smog.

particle     A minute amount of something.

pollutant     A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

power plant     An industrial facility for generating electricity.

premature     Too early; before something should occur. Premature births, for instance, are when babies are born weeks or months early — potentially before they are ready for life on their own, outside their mom’s protective womb.

range     The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. (in math or for measurements) The extent to which variation in values is possible. Also, the distance within which something can be reached or perceived.

review paper     (in science publishing) A paper that reviews the data and findings in a broad body of work by many research teams. This may include 50 to 200 different research studies or more. The authors then synthesize the findings, looking for patterns that may emerge from the data. These patterns may strengthen — or weaken — the conclusions that seem reasonable when considering just a single paper or two.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

stress     (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

trillion     A number representing a million million — or 1,000,000,000,000 — of something.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.

World Health Organization     An agency of the United Nations, established in 1948, to promote health and to control communicable diseases. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations relies on the WHO for providing international leadership on global health matters. This organization also helps shape the research agenda for health issues and sets standards for pollutants and other things that could pose a risk to health. WHO also regularly reviews data to set policies for maintaining health and a healthy environment.


Journal: Frederica P. Perera. Multiple threats to child health from fossil fuel combustion: Impacts of air pollution and climate change. Environmental Health Perspectives. Published early online June 21, 2016. do1:10.1289/EHP299.

Journal: J. Forns et al. Traffic-related air pollution, noise at school, and behavioral problems in Barcelona schoolchildren: A cross-sectional study. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 124, April 2016, p. 529. doi:10.1289/ehp.1409449.

Journal: D.Q. Rich et al. Differences in birth weight associated with the 2008 Beijing Olympics air pollution reduction: Results from a natural experiment. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 123, September 2015, p. 529. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1408795.

Journal: J. Vishnevetsky et al. Combined effects of prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and material hardship on child IQ. Neurotoxicology and Teratology. Vol. 49, May-June 2015. P. 74. doi: 10.1016/ 

Journal: B.P. Lanphear. The impact of toxins on the developing brain. Annual Review of Public Health. Vol. 36, March 2015, p. 211. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114413.

Report: White House report. The Health Impacts of Climate Change on Americans. June 2014, 7 pp.

Report: S. Clayton, C. Manning and C. Hodge. Beyond storms & droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change. A report of the American Psychological Association. June 2014.

Journal: N.L. Fleischer. Outdoor air pollution, preterm birth, and low birth weight: Analysis of the World Health Organization global survey on maternal and perinatal health. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 123, April 2014, p. 425. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1306837.

Journal: M. Pedersen et al. Ambient air pollution and low birthweight: a European cohort study (ESCAPE). Lancet: Respiratory Medicine. Vol. 1, November 2013, p. 695. doi: 10.1016/S2213-2600(13)70192-9.

Journal: R. Morello-Frosch et al. Ambient air pollution exposure and full-term birth weight in California. Environmental Health. Vol. 9, July 28, 2010. 10.1186/1476-069X-9-44.

JOURNAL: F.P. Perrera et al. Prenatal airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure and child IQ at age 5 years. Pediatrics. Vol. 124, August 1, 2009. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-3506.

Further Reading

S. Ornes. “Bird malaria moves north.” Science News for Students. October 10, 2012.

M. Das Gupta. “Lowest-income countries hit hardest by climate change.” Population Reference Bureau. 2014.

E. Grossman. “What are we doing to our children’s brains?” Ensia. February 2015.

Learn more from the World Health Organization about children and environmental health risks here, about asthma here, and about climate change and health here.

Learn more about global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at this U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site.

Learn more about the sources of greenhouse gases from this U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site.

Learn more about ozone pollution from this U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site.

Learn more about the link between climate change and extreme weather from this U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site.

Learn more about how climate change can affect infectious disease risks here, at a site by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.