Health group says Ontario must do more to protect children from climate change

An Ontario health advocacy group is calling for more action to protect children from the harmful impacts of climate change. The group says cases of asthma, heat stroke and Lyme disease could all be on the rise in the coming decades.

Children will be at greater risk of asthma, heat stroke and Lyme disease, new campaign warns

Children and parents should 'evolve their behaviour' as climate change becomes more severe, Toronto Public Health suggests. That includes seeking shade and playing outdoors during cooler hours. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

An Ontario health advocacy group is calling for more action to protect children from the harmful effects of climate change.

The non-profit Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) says children will be disproportionately at risk of asthma, heat stroke and Lyme disease, due to the longer, drier and hotter summers expected in the coming decades.

"We know that we're not on a good path here, and we know that children are among the most vulnerable," said Pegeen Walsh, executive director of the OPHA.

The organization has launched a new campaign called Make It Better, which is designed to help parents protect their children and inspire them to call for climate-focused policies. The OPHA is asking parents to sign a pledge committing to stay informed and support action on climate change.

The OPHA believes that framing the issue of climate change as a serious threat to children's health will encourage more people to become involved.

"Our research has shown that while people say they're concerned about the environment, they're often feeling very disempowered," Walsh said.

"There is urgency here," she added. "We need to be addressing climate change and people need to be informed."

More hot days, heat waves on the way

Research cited by the OPHA suggests that a trend towards more extreme summer weather will make children increasingly vulnerable to health problems.

According to climate change forecasts used by Toronto Public Health, summers in the region are expected to become much hotter if current climate trends continue.

By 2050, Toronto is expected to have up to 66 days per year above 30 C, more than triple the current average of 20 days.

By that time, the city will also experience an average of 2.5 extended heat waves of three days or more, compared to the current average of 0.6 per summer.

TPH estimates that heat contributes to an average of 120 premature deaths in the city each year, and that mortality related to heat could double by 2050 and triple by 2080, according to the city's most recent report on climate change and health.

Climate change could also lead to increased flooding, the OPHA warns, potentially displacing children from their homes. (Paul Smith/CBC)

More heat, more health problems

While rising temperatures and unstable weather are expected to have broad impacts on public health, the OPHA has identified three areas that will be especially dangerous to children.

In the case of asthma, increased air pollution, a longer pollen season and the possibility of more intense forest fires could lead to more asthma problems.

More intense heat will have a directly link to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses.

Meanwhile, Lyme disease is expected to become more prevalent since the disease-carrying ticks can become active for a longer portion of the year, meaning tick populations will have an increased ability to grow and spread.

The OPHA also says being displaced by forest fires and flooding could have a major impact on children.

The Make It Better campaign offers tips to help parents keep their children safe, including playing in the shade, drinking lots of water and moving activities to cooler hours.

Toronto Public Health also offers much of the same advice to parents and even children themselves.

"Most importantly for children, we want to see them think about how to evolve their behaviour related to climate change," said Gayle Bursey director of healthy public policy at Toronto Public Health.

However, larger scale changes to policy are also needed, both groups say.

The OPHA wants parents to pressure governments to introduce climate-friendly policies around public transportation, cycling and walking. The protection and creation of green spaces will also help mitigate dangerous health issues, the organization says.

Toronto Public Health said it supports similar climate policies, which will benefit people of all ages.

"Children are a useful motivator for policy change and the corresponding behaviour change, but really what we're talking about in terms of changes are widespread system changes that affect all residents," Bursey said.