'Black Moms Matter': Increased Heat and Pollution Raise Pregnancy Risks, Especially for Racial Minorities
The evidence is in and it's bleak. More than a decade of research and a robust review of studies found that as air pollution and heat increases so do adverse outcomes in pregnancy, according to a new investigation, as The Guardian reported.
The research published on Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 32 million births across 68 studies in the U.S. It found that women who were exposed to air pollution or higher temperatures were more likely to have children who are premature, underweight or stillborn. Like with many health-related outcomes, African Americans were hit disproportionately hard by the increases in air pollution and heat.
As The New York Times noted, the research adds to the growing evidence that racial minority communities are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis since they are much more likely to be hotter and closer to polluting industries.
Nathaniel DeNicola, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University's School of Medicine and Health Science and an author on the paper, told The Hill that while much of the current media coverage is focusing on Black men and police brutality, this paper highlights the systemic disparities for Black women, too.
"Black moms matter," he said.
"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," said Bruce Bekkar, a co-author of the study and a retired obstetrician, as The Guardian reported.
"We are already having generations weakened from birth. There's just no way we can allow that to happen, and I would like to see not just mothers and their husbands and kids show up at council meetings, but 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."
The exposures to the climate crisis are exacerbating the problems that African American women already face. According to a 2019 report from CDC researchers, Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related issues, while Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants, as InStyle reported.
Catherine Garcia Flowers, a field organizer in Houston for Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group, told The New York Times the paper was evidence that the federal government needed to increase air pollution regulations. "This is a moment of reckoning for racial injustice and health disparities," she said. "Doing nothing about air pollution, which so clearly has a greater impact on Black Americans, is racism in action."
These new findings are particularly worrying as the Trump administration has rolled back regulations on car and power plant emissions, tried to prop up the coal industry, and relaxed oversight on industries. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has made traditional summer cooling spots like public pools, movie theaters and shopping malls off-limits due to social distancing guidelines, as Human Rights Watch noted.
The review found that as heat increased, so did instances of premature birth and low birth weight, both of which can lead to cognitive deficits and physical problems through childhood and later in life.
In addition to looking at pregnancy outcomes as the planet heats up, the researchers zeroed in on two pollutants, smog and fine particulate matter — both are increasing as the climate crisis intensifies. The bulk of the studies reviewed showed that ozone and PM 2.5 are associated with preterm births, low birth weights and stillbirths. One study found that high exposure to air pollution during the final trimester of pregnancy was linked to a 42 percent increase in the risk of stillbirth, as The New York Times reported.
"Reducing air pollution and fighting climate change is a matter of their children's survival and health," said Bekkar, as The Guardian reported.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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