Rising Temps Due to Climate Change Impact Maternal Health, Studies Show

A study published in 2020 shows a direct correlation between negative birth outcomes when a woman is exposed to extreme heat during pregnancy. 

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Climate change is impacting the planet, but it can also affect your health, especially if you're pregnant. 

“People who are exposed to a lot of heat while pregnant are more likely to get heat-related illnesses than non pregnant people," said Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch. 

Wheeler is a women's rights researcher concerned by rising temperatures as she says hot conditions can put further pressure on maternal health. 

"This is an inconvenience for many, but for low income communities, communities that don’t have the money to pay for air conditioning, communities that work in very hot environments, like farm work, it’s a disaster for their health," Wheeler said.

A growing body of research, including a 2020 article published in the Journal of American Medicine, shows a direct correlation between negative birth outcomes when a woman is exposed to extreme heat during pregnancy. 

"There does appear to be a connection between exposure to extreme temperature and premature birth and other adverse birth outcomes," Wheeler said.

Wheeler says the data is higher for women of color. A 2018 study found that Black mothers are over two times more likely to have children with low birth weights than white women. 

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“For the last five years consecutively, the rates of premature birth have been going up and it’s a problem with racial equity and systemic racism at its heart," said Wheeler. "We know that because we see these very big disparities of premature birth rates between white women and almost twice as high for Black women in the U.S."

"Most of us, when it’s hot, we just turn up the air conditioning and we’re good to go, but the reality is that is a fundamentally unequal way of responding to this hazard and that is because it is so tied to your socioeconomic ability to be able to pay for AC," said Lynee Turek-Hankins, a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami, who is researching what factors are leading to this issue.

Nonprofits like The Women's Fund Miami-Dade and Human Rights Watch have been proactive in creating initiatives with local leaders to get the conversation started to make real changes. Wheeler says awareness is the first step, but more needs to be done. 

"We’re not seeing that much action yet. The kinds of things that we would like to see are pregnant people included for rebates or support so they have access to cooling for their houses, for example," Wheeler said. "More awareness and it would be good to see clinics providing posters and information for pregnant people to stay out of the heat if they can."

“If we don’t adapt and we don’t mitigate, there could be very dangerous situations,” Turek-Hankins said.

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