By: Stephanie Johannes, MD & Perry Sheffield, MD, FAAP
Human activities that lead to climate change also affect our health. These health risks are greater for pregnant people and babies. Climate change affects children even before they are born.
Breathing polluted air makes people sick and shortens lifespans. Burning fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) pollutes the air and increases the temperature. Heat makes air pollution worse.
If you are pregnant, here are ways that can help avoid these problems for yourself and your baby.
How does air pollution lead to climate change?
Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels from driving, industry, farming and
wildfires. When oil and gas are burned, they release gases into the air called greenhouse gases. The gases combine with the earth's naturally occurring greenhouse gases and form a thick blanket around the earth. The blanket has gotten thicker. This has caused the earth's temperature to rise over the past century.
The past decade was the hottest on record. The next decade will be even hotter unless we reduce fossil fuel use. Some regions will have an entire month more of extreme heat days.
Some direct health risks to pregnant people, newborns and babies from heat and air pollution are:
Preterm birth, the biggest cause of newborn illness and death
Low birthweight, a risk factor for health problems after birth
Worse health for pregnant people during and right after pregnancy, such as higher risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) and pre-eclampsia
Increased risk of stillbirth and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) from higher temperatures
Asthma in childhood from prenatal exposure to air pollution
Higher risk of conditions like
autism spectrum disorder from exposure to air pollution during pregnancy
Why climate change affects some communities more than others
People from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds breathe in more dirty air from burning fossil fuels—no matter their income level. In fact, they breathe 20% more of this pollution than white people.
Because of historic racist policies and ongoing discrimination, communities where people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and low wealth reside are more likely to be hotter. This exposes them to higher temperatures that put health at risk.
Black people and their babies have a higher risk of poor perinatal outcomes. One main reason is their increased exposure to extreme heat and air pollution during pregnancy and after birth.
How can I protect myself and my baby during pregnancy and after they are born?
Check the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area. The AQI provides details about air quality and actions you can take to protect your health. Examples may include: limiting outdoor activity, using AC or having asthma inhalers ready.
Know the risks of heat exposure in the
workplace and learn how to avoid exposure to extreme heat and air pollution during pregnancy
Keep babies cool and hydrated
Never leave your children alone in a
Electrify your home (electric stove, heat pump). Select power companies that use non-polluting energy, if possible and available in your area
Choose higher rated filters for your home's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Look for a filter with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 13 or higher to catch smaller particles in the air.
Stay up to date on mask guidance when the air is heavily polluted
Consider zero-emission vehicles and use public transportation or
walk and bike when it is safe
It's not too late. Reducing fossil fuel use will provide health benefits right away. It is the best way to slow climate change and make our air quality better.
Talk with your pediatrician about protecting your family from heat and pollution. By shifting to non-polluting energy sources, we prevent further warming and harms from climate change. Reducing fossil fuels is good for our health. Reducing pollution today reduces climate change tomorrow.
About Dr. Johannes
Stephanie Johannes, MD, MA, is a pediatrician and first-year Allergy Immunology fellow in Denver. She completed residency at Duke University in Durham, NC, and has a background in immune tolerance research before becoming a physician. She is an American Academy of Pediatrics climate advocate and founder of Carolina Advocates for Climate, Health and Equity, because she wants all people to have access to a healthy environment.
About Dr. Sheffield
Perry Sheffield, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City. She has a background in environmental science and is an American Academy of Pediatrics climate advocate.
This document was supported in part through cooperative agreement OT18-1802 awarded to the American Academy of Pediatrics and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.