2017 is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. October is Vulnerable Populations month. In collaboration with our Year of Climate Change and Health Bronze Partner, the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center, we welcome health advocate Alison Grimes to discuss the health concerns that natural disasters pose to our children.

grimes-2This has been a year of heartache, destruction and recovery for many. From a global perspective, countries like Zimbabwe, China, Peru, Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Colombia, Sierra Leone and South Asia have collectively lost citizens numbering in the thousands due to natural disasters. In the United States alone, there have been more than 50 separate weather, climate and flood disasters, which is above the 10-year average of 45.

Hailstorms, avalanches, monsoons, heavy rain and winds, landslides, mudslides, hurricanes and cyclones are each dangerous, and many across the US have experienced the unfortunate effects of at least one disaster in at least one way, shape or form. Those most impacted by these events, though, are our children.

Helping children cope
In addition to the physical harm natural disasters can cause, the mental health toll they can take, especially on children, must be addressed. Children experience trauma, and the level of trauma will depend on how the child experienced the disaster.

Following a disaster, depression, stress and anxiety rates increase in children. Moods will fluctuate and emotions run high, with an increased sense of fear and upset. It is important to be mindful of such sensitivities as adults dealing with our own well-being. Children will take their cues from parents and other adults, so addressing personal stress goes a long way toward helping children cope with their own.

Children will likely express what they’re feeling through their emotions, but also through coloring, play, drawing or other creative expression. Asking children questions will help them express and cope with their emotions, building strength when things around them may feel fragile or frightening.

Children do not have to directly experience a natural disaster to be affected either. Helping others in the community who have been directly affected will help relieve feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

And protecting children from being inundated with images, newscasts and reports of destruction will help lessen stress, anxiety and fear. Do remember, though, how quickly avoidance of the topic can reinforce fear, and the more children avoid a fear, the smaller their grasp of the world becomes.

Taking clean-up precautions
Numerous health concerns are associated with exposure to harmful carcinogens when a natural disaster occurs. Water damage from flooding or destruction of building materials from a storm require careful clean up through trained disaster relief.

Water can seep into every crack, crevice and corner, leaving nothing it touches safe. Water can be contaminated and destructive to physical objects, and its aftermath can lead to harmful mold that is unsafe to inhale. Mold spores can cause irritation to the nose and throat and enhance asthma and respiratory health concerns.

To protect all natural disaster victims, especially children, we must ensure that all water-damaged property is cleaned up in the safest way. Only trained restoration experts with protective gear should complete clean up, restoration or renovation projects. Many harmful chemicals and carcinogens — such as asbestos — once disturbed, inhaled or ingested, can lead to profound health ramifications, including lung disease and the aggressive cancer, mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers, released by the destruction of the built environment, can make their way into the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Those exposed can go on to develop mesothelioma anywhere from 10 to 50 years after exposure. So it is important to understand the risks both during and after a natural disaster in order to protect the most vulnerable among us — our children.