Man-made hazards: Effects of climate change begin in the womb

Climate change isn’t going away anytime soon — even if humanity suddenly got our collective act together and started doing more to ameliorate it — pregnancies will continue to coincide with hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.
Representative image
Representative image

NEW YORK: Every so often there will be a headline that makes my stomach drop, because it leads me to think I accidentally caused my children irreparable damage.

I felt this way in 2014, after seeing a story about a study that found white noise machines played at maximum volume may harm a baby’s hearing.

At the time, my older daughter was about 18 months old, and yes, she’d been soothed by an intense white noise device drowning out the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway every night of her young life. Sorry about your ears, kid. We didn’t know. Because I was eight months pregnant with her when Hurricane Sandy hit Brooklyn, I felt a familiar pang of anxiety when I read this recent Washington Post headline: “Pregnancy during Hurricane Sandy linked to kids’ psychiatric disorders, study says.”

The study, published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, assessed 163 children every year between the ages of 2 and 5. Sixty-six of them were exposed to Sandy in utero, which means their mothers were pregnant during the storm; 97 children were not exposed, which means they were either born before Sandy or their mothers became pregnant after the storm.

The study’s authors found that boys who were exposed to Sandy in the womb had elevated risks for “attention-deficit/disruptive behavioral disorders,” while girls had elevated risks for anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and phobias.

Though we weathered the hurricane without much disruption to our lives — our apartment building never lost power or experienced flooding — I still remember being afraid of going into early labor, knowing that it would be a dangerous struggle to get to any hospital.

Thankfully, that fear wasn’t realised, but locally, the storm did so much damage that the hospital where I was supposed to give birth, NYU Langone Medical Center, became a “flooded mess” and still wasn’t up to speed when I went into labor, so I had to deliver elsewhere.

We were lucky in so many ways, and now, at nearly 10, my daughter doesn’t have any diagnosed psychological issues (and for what it’s worth, she has the best hearing in the family).

But she does tend toward anxiety and sometimes struggles to fall asleep, especially compared to her younger sister, whose disposition tends to be a bit more glass-half-full and who typically falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.

And I wonder: Did she inherit that anxiousness from me, or is it because she was gestating during a superstorm? Can I ever really know?

Climate change isn’t going away anytime soon — even if humanity suddenly got our collective act together and started doing more to ameliorate it — and pregnancies will continue to coincide with hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

So, knowing that much of this is beyond our individual control, how should parents process studies like this? I called two of the study’s authors, Yoko Nomura, a professor of psychology at Queens College, CUNY, and Jeffrey Newcorn, a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to help me contextualise their work for the average parent living in an age of disasters.

This isn’t the first study to find that there is a potential negative impact on pregnant women and their babies during climate events.

What strengthened this study’s design is that in her research, Nomura was already looking at the impact of stress on pregnant women, so she was already working with a group of parents who’d delivered their babies before the storm.

It’s unethical to intentionally cause pregnant women stress, so you need to be ready for a natural experiment like this. “I was at the right place at the right time, and I already had a infrastructure ready to go,” Nomura told me.

In a study published in 2019, Nomura and her co-authors found that “the adverse effects of prenatal maternal depression on problematic temperament were amplified by in-utero Sandy exposure” for infants at six months.

Though Nomura’s latest publication builds on a body of research showing that stress on pregnant women affects their babies, the new study is a small one. And Newcorn cautioned parents not to worry unduly, despite the increased risk of disturbances found among children exposed to Sandy in the womb.

“When you can see the rates in the exposed versus unexposed groups, they’re a lot higher in the exposed group, but most people don’t have any of these things,” he said.

Nomura said the last thing parents should do is blame themselves. “Blame is still really toxic,” she said. We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can be attuned to our children’s development.

“Early detection and early intervention is a key for a better future,” she added. She told The Washington Post’s Caitlin Gibson that she wanted to continue to follow this group of children through their adolescence: “We are going to have to follow those kids to see how the manifestation of these disorders is going to present.”

In any case, Nomura doesn’t want the takeaway to be that the onus is solely on parents, early childhood educators, child therapists and paediatricians for repair or prevention of psychological damage to children caused by natural disasters.

To have a healthy society, we can’t just focus on individuals, she said. “Policymakers really have to invest in communities for children and pregnant women.”

That same policy emphasis should apply to the effects on children in utero and children affected by natural disasters after they’re born, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable communities, which is something our country has not been particularly good at over the past few decades, as storms have increased in frequency and power.

When a storm hits, most people who interact with children regularly “are dealing with acute cases,” Nomura said. “But then, years later, we forget about it. That long-term impact must be supported by policymakers.”

In September, Dauté Martin, who was 5 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, wrote a guest essay for The Times about the ways in which the city and many of its residents are still reeling. She talks about watching the HBO documentary “Katrina Babies,” about Black children who lived through the 2005 storm, and the film’s revelation that those children never really felt safe after that trauma, even into young adulthood — including her.

The burden cannot be on any individual to fix a problem that, as Flowers points out, is deep and, at this point, at the center of overlapping crises.

While, yes, we can ask for increased screening of children who are exposed to natural disasters in utero, that feels like putting a Band-Aid on a deep wound. It’s an inadequate fix to a problem that will cascade over our lives, and our children’s lives, for years to come.

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