How the changing climate is impacting children

By Sue Ballenski, Fort Collins chapter

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and pollution. Their rapidly developing bodies make them more susceptible to the impacts of heat and air pollution, leading to not only potential lifelong impacts but generational ones as well.

Think for a moment of the astounding growth occurring from the prenatal period to adulthood. The growth of arms and legs is obvious, but most of the brain’s eighty-six billion neurons are formed prenatally. Eighty percent of the lung’s air sacs, necessary to transfer oxygen to the blood, form after birth. Our immune system continues to develop throughout childhood. These newly created systems can be easily affected by temperature and toxins.

This article looks briefly at two climate-related effects, heat and air pollution (ambient, particulate, and ground ozone) and how they affect children.


Colorado’s average temperature has risen three degrees in the past 30 years, and temperatures above 90 degrees F during the summer are increasingly common. Because of their greater ratio of skin surface to weight, a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s does. This makes children significantly more susceptible to heat-related illnesses where the body cannot properly cool itself, including dehydration, heat exhaustion, cramps, and heat stroke. These illnesses may happen extremely quickly when the temperature is over 90 degrees F or the child is dehydrated. Renal disease, electrolyte imbalance, fever, and respiratory illness also are seen during periods of persistent heat. Children with diabetes may need to test more frequently since the heat may affect insulin levels. States with higher humidity than Colorado tend to have more heat-related illness since our bodies cannot cool as effectively when sweat doesn’t evaporate quickly. “Wet bulb temperature” is a way of accounting for both humidity and heat. When the wet bulb temperature is higher than the body’s temperature, the body is less able to successfully cool off. Being in a sustained wet bulb temperature of 95 degrees F can be fatal, even for healthy adults.

The dangers for heat-related illness are greater for lower economic status families living in urban areas. These areas tend to be heat islands (fewer trees, more asphalt) with older buildings that have less ventilation or cooling.

Air Pollution

Colorado’s major sources of air pollution are primarily from burning fossil fuels: industry (including oil production and refining), energy production, and transportation. These sources release fine particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

On sunny days, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides react in the sunshine and heat to create ground ozone. This is a significant issue for the Colorado Front Range, as Colorado averages 300 sunny days a year. Going forward, the higher temperatures caused by global heating will result in increased ozone (unless we stop burning fossil fuels). Ozone is considered a dangerous pollutant, like sandpaper on the lungs, with a wide range of related serious illnesses.

The increase in wildfire poses another source of air pollution. Although wildfire smoke contains other chemicals, it is the high percentage of small particles that are the danger. Larger particles can be coughed out of the lungs, but smaller particles move deep into the tissue or even through the lung wall into the bloodstream. The effects of these particles can be deadly.

The effects of air pollution on children start before birth. A mother’s exposure to air pollutants, ozone, and/or particulates, is associated with premature birth and low birth weight. Research specifically on the impacts of prenatal exposure to ultra small particulates is alarming. These studies show decreased lung development that impacts respiratory health throughout childhood. Additionally, studies suggest that prenatal exposure to small particulates correlates with neurobehavioral issues, decreased cognitive abilities, as well as metabolic dysfunctions causing weight gain.

After birth, children are still at risk from air pollution simply because they breathe faster than adults, taking in more toxins in a shorter time. Children exposed to higher levels of pollution, including small particulates, showed reduced lung function that improved if moved to an area of better air quality. Studies done in situations where air pollution is reduced, as for the Beijing Olympics or the imposition of air quality regulations in Los Angeles, show local improvements in child respiratory disease, like bronchitis and asthma, and respiratory inflammation. However, if a child remains in a polluted area until maturity, this damage may become permanent.

Ozone is especially dangerous and can cause life-long damage in a short time. Rates of children with asthma are higher in lower income areas near pollution sources. This is evidenced in Denver, where young students in schools located in lower-income neighborhoods near I-70 have a higher incidence of asthma. There also may be more ozone staying along the Front Range than previously understood. More recent studies show that ozone may be moving up canyons at night and back down to the urban areas during the day, rather than being blown away by winds from the west.

What you can do

  • Protect your family. Be aware of the temperature and air quality indicators. Take precautions when needed. Monitor young children while in a hot car. Some resources are listed in the references below.
  • Spread the word. You understand that the use of fossil fuels is impacting our climate and our health. Share this knowledge with neighbors, friends and your representatives in government. Help raise awareness.


Protecting your child

Davis, Dele. Extreme Heat: Keeping Kids Safe When Temperatures Soar Protecting Children from Extreme Heat: Information for Parents. Healthy Children.

Wildfires: What Parents Need to Know. Health Children.

Air Quality and Smoke Outlook. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control.

AirNow Fire and Smoke Map.


American Lung Association:

Brash, Sam. The EPA moves to declare the Front Range a ‘severe’ air quality violator. Here’s why that matters. Colorado Public Radio. April 12, 2022.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control. Air Quality 101.

George Mason University and Healthy Babies/Bright Future. The link between Fossil Fuels and Neurological Harm.

Levine, Lois. How climate change is making your patients sick, and what you can do about it. May 7, 2022. Contemporary Pediatrics.

Johnson, N.M., Hoffmann, A.R., Behlen, J.C. et al. Air pollution and children’s health—a review of adverse effects associated with prenatal exposure from fine to ultrafine particulate matter. Environ Health Prev Med 26, 72 (2021).

Miller, Jessica. Act on climate change – and protect kid’s health. May 19, 2021. Colorado Politics.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dangerous humid heat extremes occurring decades before expected. NOAA Research News. May 8, 2020.

Perera, Frederica P. Multiple Threats to Child Health from Fossil Fuel Combustion: Impacts of Air Pollution and Climate Change. Environmental Health Perspectives. February1, 2017

Santoro, Helen. How Colorado’s changing climate is putting children’s health at risk. The Colorado Sun. May 12, 2022.