This March, Colorado State Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster) stood at a podium in the State Capitol and spoke to a gathered crowd about reducing the state’s air pollution. After introductions, Winter, Gov. Jared Polis and others unveiled a package of environmental bills that aim to increase access to public transit, build more energy efficient buildings, and construct safe walkways and e-bike trails in the Denver area.
“We know that ozone can cause cancer and heart disease and lung disease,” Winter said, noting that in 2021, the Front Range experienced one of its worst summers with regards to air pollution. “My daughter had cross-country practices cancelled because her developing lungs couldn’t be out in our air.”
In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to declare Colorado’s Front Range as a “severe” air quality violator. More than 70% of Colorado’s 1.3 million children live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone, a colorless and highly irritating gas that forms just above the earth’s surface, according to a profile on Colorado children’s health by the nonprofit Children’s Environmental Health Network. (Counties with “unhealthy” ozone pollution were those that received a D or F grade from the American Lung Association based on the number of days with poor air quality.) For children, exposure to air pollution can lead to long-lasting health problems, including asthma and diminished lung development.
“Kids can’t help that they’re still developing,” said Chrissy Esposito, a policy analyst at the Colorado Health Institute (a Colorado Trust grantee). “They still have developing immune systems, organs—they can’t help that they breathe faster.”
Colorado’s changing climate and rising temperatures are in part what is contributing to the polluted air. The weather factors that drive heat waves have also been shown to intensify surface ozone and air pollution. In 2018, the state was 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than it was in 1970.
Consequently, studying how children’s health responds to climate change is vital—especially in poorer communities that are most at risk, Esposito said.
Heat can impact a person’s health in many ways. It can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration—all of which are particularly risky for children, as well as the elderly or people with chronic health conditions. In Colorado, rising temperatures can also indirectly affect health through a drier climate that is more prone to wildfires, thus leading to poorer air quality.
And then there’s ozone. A 2021 study by National Jewish Health in Denver found that rising temperatures have caused higher Front Range concentrations of ground-level ozone. These ozone levels were higher in areas with more Latino residents and children living within 100% to 200% of the federal poverty line. This may be because Denver’s neighborhoods with majority-Latino residents are located nearby three interstate highways, a power plant and the state’s largest oil and gas refinery. The highest level of ozone was also found in major urban centers, which have long been associated with high rates of poverty.
“Climate change has sped up ozone production and will continue to make the problem worse until we reduce heat-trapping emissions,” James L. Crooks, PhD, a National Jewish Health researcher and lead author on the study, said in a press release. “Climate change is already upon us and we can already detect its influence on the Front Range’s ozone problem.”
Climate change threatens to undo progress that’s been made against air pollution in recent decades. Nationwide, ozone levels have declined significantly since the 1980s, with a notable decrease after 2002, according to the EPA. Yet in Colorado, motor vehicles and oil and gas operations are the two largest contributors to ozone levels in the Front Range, and neither source is likely to be substantially mitigated anytime soon.
Children with asthma are particularly at risk from ozone, and data shows that asthma rates are higher among those living in poverty. A 2010 study found that low-income Californians experience more frequent asthma symptoms than those in higher income brackets. Children in Arizona’s lower-income urban communities are more likely to need urgent care for asthma than kids in other zip codes. Another study discovered that in the United Kingdom, early-life poverty increases a teen’s risk of developing asthma by a shocking 70%.
This can be due to factors like proximity to environmental pollution; in the Denver area, for example, public schools with the worst asthma rates are concentrated along the I-70 corridor and in neighborhoods challenged by lower incomes and higher numbers of uninsured residents.
Southeast Colorado paints a clear picture of this link. In both Otero and Prowers counties, for example, almost a quarter of kids live below the poverty line, according to data collected by the American Community Survey. An average of more than 23% of residents in Colorado’s Health Statistics Region 6 (which includes Baca, Bent, Crowley, Huerfano, Kiowa, Las Animas, Otero and Prowers counties) have asthma, compared to the more affluent Region 12 (Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties) that has an average asthma rate of 16%.
“It’s no secret that here in Colorado, our air is not as clean as it should be,” said State Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Denver), who also spoke at the Capitol this March. “Too often, it’s my community—low-income folks, people of color—who pay the price.”
Rising temperatures hurt more than just a child’s ability to breathe. Children also absorb more heat due to their smaller bodies having a greater surface-to-volume ratio, making them particularly susceptible to dehydration, heat stress and heat-related fatalities. They are also more likely to experience renal disease, electrolyte imbalance and fever during episodes of persistent heat.
In a study published in January, scientists analyzed 3.8 million visits to emergency departments from 47 children’s hospitals from 2016 to 2018. They discovered that extreme heat during late spring and summer was associated with more emergency department visits by children and adolescents. In fact, 12% of these hospital visits, which included heat-related illness and morbidities, could be attributed to higher temperatures.
Colorado doesn’t have clear data on kids’ emergency department visits due to heat, but there don’t seem to be many children going to the hospital for this reason, said Lalit Bajaj, MD, an emergency medicine physician and chief quality and outcomes officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado. This is likely because, unlike states like Texas or Louisiana, Colorado’s climate is much more arid.
Humidity puts people at a far greater risk of heat-related illness because it makes it harder for sweat to evaporate, which keeps the body from cooling, said Bajaj. According to the Mayo Clinic, a high heat index—a measure of both actual temperature and humidity—increases people’s sensitivity to heat. Thus, 85 degrees Fahrenheit in Colorado feels very different than 85 degrees in Texas.
This isn’t to say that heat-related illnesses don’t happen in Colorado. Across the state, the rate of heat-related emergency department visits is 5.2 per 100,000 people, and some southeastern Colorado counties have a much higher rate. Prowers County, for example, saw a rate of 33 people per 100,000 in 2020.
Beyond the documented harms of poor air quality, much more research is needed on how children are impacted by climate change, said Esposito: “These kids are growing up in a time when climate change is happening right now.”
Yet in more than half of Colorado’s 64 counties, local government and public health agencies have not developed plans to address climate change, according to a report on health and climate by the Colorado Health Institute.
“A lot of plans tend to be in rich counties and rich cities,” said Esposito, who was a co-author on the institute’s report. “We don’t want to just say, ‘Yuma County doesn’t have a plan.’ Well, Yuma County doesn’t have the resources or the infrastructure to create a plan or sustain it.” In 2021, the average income per person in Yuma County, which is in northeastern Colorado on the border of Kansas and Nebraska, was $28,791, compared to a statewide average of $39,545.
Some local governments in more affluent areas have taken action. Carbondale’s Climate Energy Action Plan, created in 2017, outlines goals and specific actions to transition the city’s energy use away from coal-fired power plants and toward renewable energy. The mountain town of Telluride is also working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach carbon neutrality.
There has also been movement on a statewide level in addition to the proposed package of environmental bills for 2022. Last year, Polis signed a new climate-change bill into law that strengthened regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, particularly for electricity, oil and gas, and other industrial sectors. The bill also calls for emission cuts and pollution reduction in “disproportionally impacted communities” where there are higher percentages of low-income people and people of color.
Nevertheless, that law doesn’t include the aggressive regulations that some Democratic lawmakers and conservationists wanted. Reports indicate that Colorado will still fall drastically short of its emissions goals without more ambitious tactics and strategies.
A lot more still needs to be done to protect Colorado kids as climate change progresses, advocates say.
“Just as those before fought for survival and justice, I fight for a healthy future for the next seven generations,” Shaina Oliver, an Indigenous mother of six in Denver and coordinator of the Moms Clean Air Force of Colorado, said at the March meeting on air pollution at the Capitol. “The next generations are dependent on our strength today.”