Climate change affects all aspects of our lives, whether we realize it or not. It permeates every facet of the Earth, which means it’s directly affecting us in our daily lives. A new review of studies on the subject shows that air pollution and high heat exposure have a staggering effect on births. Both can lead to premature birth, low birth weight and even stillbirth. After a team of researchers studied 32 million births in the US, it was also clear that Black mothers and their children fare the worst.
Their paper, published in JAMA Network Open, a part of the Journal of the American Medical Association, examines the research of 68 different studies on climate change and birth. 84 percent of the studies found that air pollution and heat are risk factors. Much of the research examines the effect two main types of air pollution have on pregnancy. Ozone pollution (smog) is the first, along with PM 2.5, which are tiny particles. According to the authors of the paper, as climate change becomes more common, we’re seeing more of these types of air pollution. Both ozone and PM are associated with preterm births, stillbirth and low birth weight, as many of the studies in the paper found.
“When you talk about climate, people think about severe weather, big storms or huge fires … but we wanted to talk about the impacts that are common and widespread and ongoing and also are rarely attributed to the climate crisis,” former obstetrician and co-author of the study, Bruce Bekkar, tells The Guardian.
Climate change is bigger than just extremely hot or cold weather. That’s just the thing that is the most tangible. Not enough people are looking at what those extreme shifts in weather are actually doing to people. We don’t think enough about how things like temperature play into our overall health, but this examination is a grim reminder.
“We are already having generations weakened from birth,” Bekkar continues. “There’s just no way we can allow that to happen…I’d like to see many more health professionals involved in calling for legislation that reduces the ongoing and really pretty scary health burdens of the climate crisis.”
Getting legislation to seriously look at climate change is a battle in the U.S. The Trump administration blatantly refuses to acknowledge that it’s even a real problem. And instead of increasing research into how we’re being affected, they’re cutting funding and rolling back EPA protections. Research shows that any attempts at regulation so far are incredibly lackluster.
Climate change is already affecting people’s decisions to have children. People are starting to realize that if we keep up the way things are going, there’s no chance for our children to live in an environmentally safe world. They’re basing their decisions on the broader climate change conversation, but now there’s also this conversation to have.
Talking about the way climate change is affecting pregnancy is important. But it’s also important to point out the stark reality that there are some people who will be more impacted than others. As multiple studies show, Black women are at a higher risk than just about any other mothers.
“This is a moment of reckoning for racial injustice and health disparities,” Catherine Garcia Flowers, a field organizer in Houston for the advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, tells The New York Times. “Doing nothing about air pollution, which so clearly has a greater impact on Black Americans, is racism in action.”
According to a 2019 press release from the CDC, Black women (along with American Indian and Alaska Native women) are “two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.” And this only increases with age. The pregnancy-related mortality ratio for Black women over 30 is 4-5 times higher than for their white counterparts. Chronic health issues like cardiomyopathy, thrombotic pulmonary embolism, and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy lead to the death of more Black mothers than white mothers.
Pregnancy-related death is defined by the CDC’s Pregnancy-Related Mortality Surveillance System as “the death of a woman during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy from a pregnancy complication; a chain of events initiated by pregnancy; or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiologic effects of pregnancy.”
The studies in the paper also found that mothers with asthma are high risk, and asthma is another chronic illness that plagues the Black community. One study found that mothers with asthma were more likely to deliver pre-term. In fact, asthmatic mothers are 52 more likely to have a severe preterm birth, which is a birth before 28 weeks gestation.
“Black moms matter,” Bekkar told The New York Times. “It’s time to really be paying attention to the groups that are especially vulnerable.”
While there is no concrete reason Black women die at higher rates, there are a few major factors. The first and most important is institutional racism. Many doctors aren’t listening to their Black patients when they say something is wrong, which means they are missing opportunities to prevent maternal deaths. But location and environment play a bigger underlying part to the problems that are they’re ignoring.
As a 2018 paper found, Black mothers are 2.4 times more likely to have babies with low birth weight compared to white mothers. Black mothers are also facing a higher likelihood of stillbirth; in some places, they’re twice as likely than white mothers to suffer such devastating loss. And as many of the studies in this paper find, these issues are largely environmental.
According to Dr. Rupa Basu, one of the paper’s co-authors and chief of the air and climate epidemiological section for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California, Black folks are more likely to live in areas with higher percentages of air pollution. On top of that, they may not be financially able to afford things like an air conditioner. They may not even live in a place where they can have one.
Some of the studies found that heat is another prominent risk factor. Climate change is causing more frequent and intense heat waves across the country. So it’s only exacerbating what we already know to be a problem. Heat plays a factor in higher numbers of both premature births and low birth weight. Four of the studies found that high temperatures are connected to a higher risk of premature birth — between 8.6 and 21 percent.
Black mothers are more likely to live in “heat islands,” described by the EPA as “built up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas.” In these areas, the mean (average) air temperature for a city with over 1 million people can be 1.8 to 5.4 degrees higher than an surrounding area. At night, that goes up to a striking difference of 22 degrees. The effects heat islands have on communities include “increasing summertime peak energy demand, air conditioning costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illness and mortality, and water pollution.”
Taking climate change seriously shouldn’t be optional at this point. Not when we have so much data showing how dangerous its effects are. How can we see these studies and not seriously look at what it’s doing to women and babies? When we’re putting women, especially Black women, at higher risk, we can’t continue to pretend this isn’t a very real problem.