How to Help Families Get Through Climate-Related Disasters

Jake Remaly

November 05, 2020

Wildfires burned millions of acres in California, Oregon, and Washington this year. Record numbers of tropical storms and hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. "Climate change is here. Disasters are here. They are going to be increasing, which is why we want to talk about this and talk about how pediatricians can help and respond to these events," Scott Needle, MD, said at the annual meeting American Academy of Pediatrics, held virtually this year.

"We have seen from past disasters that people look to us ... as a trusted source of information," said Needle, chief medical officer of Elica Health Centers in Sacramento, California. "We can be a positive influence in terms of getting out proactive messaging and keeping people informed."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 2019 National Household Survey found that about half of households had an emergency plan. A theme across surveys is that, although households take some steps to get ready for disasters, the public generally "is not as prepared for these events as they really need to be," Needle said.

The AAP, the Red Cross, and FEMA are among the organizations that offer planning guides, most of which emphasize three simple things: have a kit, have a plan, and be informed, he said.

To prepare for a disaster, parents might refill a child's medications ahead of time if possible, Needle suggested. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, families should add masks, sanitizers, and wipes to their go-bags.

Physicians also can help families by asking how they are coping.

Wildfire Smoke

"Smoke from wildfires can blanket large, large areas," Mark Miller, MD, MPH, said during the presentation at the AAP meeting. "This year, we have seen wildfire smoke from the western states reach all the way to the East Coast. So this impacts your patients and your own families sometimes, regardless of wherever you live."

Children may be more vulnerable to wildfire smoke because they often spend more time outdoors and tend to be more active. In addition, their ongoing development means exposure to air pollutants could have lifelong consequences, said Miller, who recently reviewed the effects of wildfire smoke on children.

"Children with asthma should have some information about wildfires built into their asthma management plan," said Miller, who is affiliated with Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) and University of California, San Francisco. Pollutants are associated with respiratory visits and admissions, asthma exacerbations, decreased lung function, and neurocognitive effects. They also may be carcinogenic.

A study in monkeys found that smoke exposure during California wildfires in 2008 was associated with immune dysregulation and compromised lung function in adolescence.

Another study of three cohorts of children in southern California found that air pollutant levels were associated with children's lung function.

Organizations have provided resources on creating cleaner air spaces during wildfires, including guides to build DIY air filter fans. provides air quality and fire maps that can inform decisions about school closures and outdoor activities. Communities should prioritize establishing schools as clean air shelters, Miller suggested.

Studies have found that respirators and medical masks may decrease children's exposure to smoke. Children should not use face coverings, however, if they are younger than 2 years, if they are not able to remove the face covering on their own or tell an adult that they need help, or if they have difficulty breathing with a face covering. Younger children should be observed by an adult.

During the pandemic, families should be aware that some types of masks are sold only for health care use, many foreign respirators are counterfeit, and cloth masks used for COVID-19 are not suitable for reducing wildfire smoke exposure, Miller said.

Hazards May Linger

Long-term mental health issues may be the disaster consequence that pediatricians encounter most often, Needle said.

Eighteen months after a major wildfire in Canada, more than one-third of middle and high school students in one community had probable posttraumatic stress disorder (that is, intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and increased arousal). In addition, 31% of students had probable depression. Rates were elevated relative to a control group of students in another community that was not affected by the fire.

Findings indicate that a patient's degree of exposure to a disaster affects the likelihood of adverse outcomes. On the other hand, resiliency may help mitigate adverse effects. "The hope is that if we can find ways to encourage resiliency before or in the aftermath of an event, we may be able to, in a sense, reduce some of these mental health sequelae," Needle said.

Posttraumatic reactions in kids are likely after a disaster. "They may not rise to the level of a diagnosable condition, but they are very common in kids," he said. "It is important to at least be able to counsel parents to recognize some of the common reactions," such as acting withdrawn or aggressive, somatic complaints, and having trouble sleeping.

The AAP has a policy statement that encourages talking to children about their concerns with honest and age-appropriate responses, he noted.

When returning to an area after a disaster, many hazards may remain, such as floodwaters, ash pits, mold, and carbon monoxide from generators. "Generally speaking, you don't want to have kids return to these areas until it is safe," Needle said.

Exacerbation of existing conditions – perhaps because of lost medications, smoke exposure, or stress – may be another common problem. Other problems after a disaster could include domestic violence (direct or witnessed) and substance abuse.

"We have a responsibility to take care of our own health as well," Needle added. "You can't take care of others if you're not taking care of yourself. It's not being selfish. As a matter of fact, it's being prudent. It's survival."

Needle and Miller had no relevant financial disclosures. Miller's presentation was supported by the AAP and funded in part by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides funding support for the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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