As Earth Day approaches, it seems fitting that this year’s campaign is focused on environmental and climate literacy because it reminds us as ob-gyns how important it is for us to participate in the effort by leveraging the trust our patients have in us. Our partner organization, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, has kicked off the week by launching a social media awareness campaign around Earth Day. You can follow them on Twitter under the handle @FIGOHQ.
Last month, I spoke at the launch of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health that has brought together ten associations representing nearly 500,000 physicians, including ACOG, to help increase awareness among the public and policymakers about the negative health effects of climate change on Americans. During my talk, I spoke about the fact that women face some of the greatest risks from climate change over the course of their lives, and especially during pregnancy. In affected regions, climate change puts women at risk of disease, malnutrition, poor mental health, lack of reproductive control, and even death. Additionally, women’s exposure to toxic environmental agents during the preconception and prenatal stages can have a profound and lasting effect on obstetrical and later life outcomes, including increased risk of birth defects and childhood cancer.
In 2016, ACOG adopted a policy which recognizes that climate change is an urgent women’s health concern and a major public health challenge endangering fetal health. In fact, we discover new evidence every day of how it can disturb fetal development. A recent NIH study found that exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures during pregnancy leads to increased risk of low birth weight in infants.
While the connection between climate change and women’s health may not at first seem obvious, there are a number of ways it directly impacts women’s health. You can look at them in several categories: a healthy pregnancy starts with clean air, clean water, no toxic chemicals, and stable climate.
Air pollution poses serious risks for women’s health. It is linked to pregnancy loss, low birth weight babies, and preterm delivery. Fine particle air pollution affects the placenta in pregnancy, and can interfere with fetal brain development. Ambient and household air pollution result in 7 million deaths globally per year; these effects are worse in low-resource areas.
Heavy downpours and flooding mixed with high temperatures can spread bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that lead to contaminated food and water. This results in higher levels of methylmercury in fish and shellfish, a known cause of birth defects.
Increased use of pesticides can interfere with the developmental stages of female reproductive functions, including puberty, menstruation and ovulation, menopause, fertility, and the ability to reproduce multiple offspring. These toxic exposures also affect fetal brain development, and contribute to learning, behavioral, or intellectual impairment, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.
Extreme temperatures have fostered increases in the number and geographic range of insects. For example, Zika-carrying mosquitos have led to more than 1,500 infections in pregnant women across the United States and District of Columbia, and more than 3,200 infections in Puerto Rico and U.S. territories. Furthermore, extreme heat during pregnancy is tied to a 31 percent increase in low birthweight babies less than 5.5 pounds.
Unfortunately, in many cases, underserved and vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by climate change. This includes individuals living in poverty, exposed to toxic materials via their occupation, who lack nutritious food, and live in low quality housing. That’s why access to health care is so critical.
We don’t all have to be experts in environmental science, but we all need to support rigorous scientific investigation into the effects of climate change and toxic environmental agents. With evidence to support us, ob-gyns must be the authoritative voice and help to ensure that the discussion on climate change includes protecting the health and safety of all women and children.
This blog post was co-authored by Nathaniel DeNicola, MD, MSHP, the ACOG liaison to the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Council on Environmental Health, and social media director for the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics Working Group on Reproductive and Developmental Environmental Health.