Climate change brings health issues, challenges for pregnant women

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(NEW YORK) — Dr. Santosh Pandipati has seen up close the impact of climate change on his personal and professional life.

“I’ve taken care of patients who’ve had to flee wildfires,” the San Francisco-based physician told ABC News. “The same wildfires that led to the terrible air quality that my family and I had to breathe.”

“We understand that excess heat exposure, air pollution, particulate air pollution, especially, has adverse impacts on pregnancy outcomes and not just pregnancy outcomes,” said Pandipati, who is a maternal fetal medicine specialist in the Bay Area and has been researching the connections between climate change and health for the past five years.

Studies have found that high ambient temperature can increase the risk of preterm births and that ambient air pollution can decrease birth weight in some populations.

When speaking with new and expectant mothers, Pandipati said he leans on the studies’ findings when he discusses the spread of infectious diseases, heat and air pollution avoidance as well as disaster readiness.

“This is a topic that’s unfortunately going to impact your family,” he said. “It’s going to impact everyone’s family.”

A scientific review published in 2015 found a relationship between climate change exposure and several adverse pregnancy outcomes including eclampsia, preeclampsia, cataracts, low birthweight, preterm birth and hypertension.

A study published in 2020 found that heat exposure may have attributed to an estimated 25,000 early births per year between 1969 and 1988.

“There are significant mental health harms: anxiety, depression [and] PTSD,” Pandipati added. “We also understand that the offspring, the babies, are at risk for lower birth weight, stillbirth [and] premature birth.”

Pandipati and another researcher, David E. Abel, predict climate change and extreme weather events may be linked to increase anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders and effect women disproportionately. Research has shown that in addition to lower birthrates and preterm births, climate change can be linked to an increase in the likelihood of stillbirths due to extreme heat.

Esther McCant, a Miami-based doula, told ABC News she regularly gives her clients information about climate change and specifically how it might impact their pregnancies. A doula assists pregnant women by offering information, as well as emotional and physical support during labor.

The advice she gives expectant mothers, based in part on guidance from the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, include hurricane preparation, the importance of hydration, how to manage extreme heat as well as tips for getting government and employer support.

In one example she gave, she evacuated from Florida to Georgia along with her expectant client and their respective children when Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017.

Her client was “already dealing with issues with her housing,” McCant told ABC News, and “didn’t feel safe to stay in her home.”

During the experience of evacuating, McCant realized, “that pregnancy is not often seen as a special circumstance to pay attention to during a hurricane,” she said.

For McCant, it’s a part of her work that she is expanding. “I’m actually working on training other doulas about climate change,” she said.

Despite the obstacles to climate change reduction, Pandipati is hopeful.

“We are not too far gone,” he said. “We absolutely still have the ability to mitigate and reduce the impact that we have had and to course correct.”

“I think this is an opportunity for the health care community to really speak up,” he said. “I think we can do it. It just takes the right will, and I think we can find that will.”


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