A new mom (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)
While the media has started to connect heat-related deaths to climate change over the past few years, one particularly vulnerable group is too rarely discussed in reporting and not reflected in policy: pregnant people and newborns. As the climate crisis gets worse, we need policies to prevent dangerous outcomes and to undo vast inequities in pregnancy.
After centuries of disenfranchisement, many pregnant people of color living in New York City sit at the intersection of systemic racism, health inequity, and the dangers of our already warming planet.
The body’s ability to regulate temperature is compromised during pregnancy, meaning that increasing temperatures caused by climate change pose a particular risk to pregnant people. This is especially true in New York City, where maternal mortality rates and increased heat from climate change are high and experienced unequally.
In areas of the city that are already hotter on average because of the urban heat island effect, like the South Bronx and Harlem, the impact of increased heat can be especially harmful. Due to a long history of racism, disinvestment, and environmental injustice, many of these hotter neighborhoods are home to majority people of color.
In addition to exacerbating these inequities in heat, climate change worsens pre-existing health risks related to birth outcomes. Black women in New York City are also up to 12 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts. Increased heat has been connected to both preterm birth and low birth weight, and Black women living in the Bronx already experience higher rates of both.
Despite the linkage between heat and pregnancy outcomes, pregnant people are largely kept out of discussions about those vulnerable to heat. What’s more, health providers don’t always share the risks of heat with their pregnant patients. Even if they do, there aren’t many options for reducing heat exposure at an individual level. Air conditioners are expensive, often prohibitively so, as are electric bills. Public housing buildings are often older and hold more heat. Employers aren’t required to offer cooling options and many jobs require long-term exposure to high heat levels that are impossible for workers to avoid.
This is a huge, multifaceted issue, but luckily, there are things we can do about it.
For everyone to have the healthy pregnancies they deserve, our leaders must ensure that all people are set up well to withstand the heat and access the care they need. In addition to more general climate responses, we must pay specific attention to pregnancy-related heat issues. We need policies that provide funding for healthcare worker training on the issue, further research on climate change and pregnancy, improved breathability conditions in NYCHA buildings, better protections for pregnant people on the job, and better access to air conditioning for low-income families.
As the climate crisis worsens, pregnancy-related outcomes will get worse with it. The difference between acting effectively and not will be measured by the life and well-being of future generations.
Isabel Levey-Swain is a graduate student at CUNY School of Public Health. She has worked and researched at the intersection of gender and health equity for several years.