We have known for decades that early life experiences can affect long-term health. Poor nutrition during pregnancy, for example, has been linked with a range of negative outcomes for children, including high blood pressure and metabolic diseases. The effects of smoking or being exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy are also widely recognised, and include increased risk of stillbirths and birth defects. We also know that adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth and low birthweight, are risk factors for health problems in adulthood. The role of early life influences on long-term health is extensive and complex; in fact, it formed the rationale for my own PhD work on behaviour change during pregnancy.
But the factors that affect pregnancy outcomes and long-term health go far beyond individual behaviours. In reality, a complex system of environmental, social and economic factors is inextricably linked to health outcomes at every stage of life. Climate change is an increasingly salient part of this system, and it can harm early development in various ways.
Air pollution and extreme temperatures threaten maternal health and pregnancy outcomes
Air pollution has been linked to a range of adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm labour and low birthweight, which are themselves risk factors for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes in adulthood. Exposure to pollution can also affect lung development and function, and is thought to contribute to the development of childhood asthma. Air pollution disproportionately affects socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in many countries.
Emerging evidence from around the world suggests that more extreme temperatures – especially high temperatures – linked to climate change are also associated with preterm birth, low birthweight and stillbirth. These findings have garnered some attention in recent years, but plans and resources related to climate change or extreme heat often fail to address pregnant women as a vulnerable population.