Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue—it’s a women’s health issue, too.
Changes to our environment can have a direct effect on women’s health as well as impacting access to health care. The shifts in climate change average weather patterns, mainly by creating warming temperatures but also extreme weather events, including natural disasters.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) established its position on women’s health and climate change starting in 2016. The organization warns that environmental exposures can disproportionately impact women and heighten existing health issues.
“The effects of climate change include food and water insecurity, civil conflicts, extreme weather events, and spread of disease—all of which put women at elevated risk of disease, malnutrition, sexual violence, poor mental health, lack of reproductive control, negative obstetric outcomes and death,” state the authors of the ACOG position statement.
Moreover, research shows that climate change exacerbates the health disparities faced by women of color. They may deal with even harsher influences from climate shifts and extreme weather events, especially if pregnant. In some countries, gender inequalities that affect women’s human rights, political and economic status and education can become even worse during times of disaster.
Impacts on maternal, infant and menstrual health
Air pollution and heat exposure are two main aspects of climate change that have been linked to negative birth incomes. Namely, a 2020 review of 57 studies found that heat, ozone or fine particulate matter can lead to preterm birth, low birth weight and stillbirth. A 2015 study linked climate change to unfavorable effects on eclampsia and preeclampsia.
Climate change has also been linked to young women starting their menstrual cycle earlier or later as a result of decreased food availability and/or increased exposure to toxins or pollutants. An early or late period may not sound so serious, but it can have an effect on disease risk and long-term health.
Air quality effects on women’s health
Women with asthma and pregnant women can be specifically susceptible to the increased particulate matter in the air.
Pregnant women living or working in industrial areas or near busy freeways or ports should aim to avoid those areas if at all possible, but especially during the warmest times of the day as heat increases ozone levels, explains Bruce Bekkar, MD, a doctor and member of ecoAmerica’s Climate for Health Ambassadors Advisory Committee. (He also led the 2020 report mentioned above.)
Monitor air quality conditions to see what the air is like in your area before going outside. When air conditions are poor, you may choose to stay indoors if possible.
But indoor air can be harmful, too. “Women can lower their exposure to indoor air pollutants by making sure to vent their gas stoves or switching to induction cooktops,” he tells Motherly. If applicable, you can weatherize your home to reduce the need to use heaters, too, Dr. Bekkar adds.
“The same behaviors will help protect children as well, who are more sensitive to air pollution, both indoors and out. Chronic exposure not only may worsen asthma but may help to cause it as well,” Dr. Bekkar notes.
Protecting yourself—and the rest of the world
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself (and your child, if you’re expecting) from the effects of climate change:
- Monitor air pollution levels near your house; stay indoors if they’re high.
- Check the weather near your due date to stay on top of any weather events that could prevent you from getting to the hospital or birth center.
- Avoid spending a lot of time outside or exercising near high-traffic areas or during extreme heat.
- Use an air purifier or filtration system in your home and office.
- Don’t burn anything on the grounds of your house. Limit burning candles indoors.
- Avoid exposure to cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
- Choose natural cleaning products or those that have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safer Choice label to avoid airborne chemical irritants.
- Use a lead test on surfaces if the house was built prior to 1978.
Don’t forget that taking action to prevent pollution can prevent further environmental damage. Using sustainable and renewable materials, recycling and lowering your carbon footprint are all ways to ease the effects of climate change.
Dr. Bekkar encourages people to get empowering information so they can take action instead of simply fearing climate shifts. Reach out to a local group to get involved, he suggests.
“Once women take the first step and see they can make a difference, they will often continue, and this alchemy of turning anxiety into action will make them feel less afraid and more optimistic,” Dr. Bekkar notes. “Then, they’re involved in not just adapting to climate change, but to stopping it as well.”
Bruce Bekkar, MD, is a doctor and member of ecoAmerica’s Climate for Health Ambassadors Advisory Committee.
Bekkar B, et al. Association of Air Pollution and Heat Exposure With Preterm Birth, Low Birth Weight, and Stillbirth in the US: A Systematic Review. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(6):e208243. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.8243
Bell ML, et al. Ambient air pollution and low birth weight in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115(7):1118-1124. doi:10.1289/ehp.9759
Canelón SP, et al. A Systematic Literature Review of Factors Affecting the Timing of Menarche: The Potential for Climate Change to Impact Women’s Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020; 17(5):1703. doi:10.3390/ijerph17051703
Poursafa P, et al. Systematic review on adverse birth outcomes of climate change. J Res Med Sci. 2015;20(4):397-402. PMID: 26109998