Adding to the dire and ever-growing list of adverse effects of climate change on our planet, a new study has predicted that rising temperatures will lead to an increase in the number of infants born with congenital heart defects. According to Live Science‘s Yasemin Saplakoglu, the findings of the new research suggest we could start seeing this worrying trend as early as 2025.
Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are already the most common birth defect in children born in the United States, affecting some 40,000 babies every year. Some of the authors of the new study, published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association, have previously been involved in research that has linked maternal heat exposure early in pregnancy to higher rates of coronary heart disease. Scientists don’t know why this is the case, but animal studies suggest that heat can cause fetal cell death or interfere with heat-sensitive proteins essential for fetal development.
For the follow-up study, a team of researchers led by Wangjian Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Albany, looked at data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, a large survey that covered about 482,000 births per year between 1997 and 2007. They also used change predictions and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies to simulate changes in daily maximum temperatures in distinct geographic regions in the United States. Finally, the researchers calculated the amount of heat that pregnant women in each region should be exposed to in spring and summer.
The team’s projections are sobering. Based on the number of births expected between 2025 and 2035, the team estimated that there will be 7,000 additional babies born with coronary artery disease in eight representative states: Arkansas, Texas, California, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, New York and Utah. The Midwest is expected to see the largest increase in maternal heat exposure, followed by the Northeast and the South.
“Our findings underscore the alarming impact of climate change on human health and underscore the need for better preparedness to deal with the anticipated increase in a complex condition that often requires lifelong care and monitoring. life”, says study co-author Shao Lin, a professor at the University of Albany School of Public Health.
Climate change is not going anywhere fast; research suggests that even if we were to stop all fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, Earth’s system is so out of whack that our planet would be continues to heat up. So it’s important, Lin says, that clinicians advise women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant on how to protect themselves from extreme heat episodes. It is especially crucial for women to avoid extreme heat during the first three to eight weeks after conception, a critical period in the development of a growing fetus.