Natural disasters, pregnancy and baby health are linked. Should Canadians be worried? | CBC News


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This week:

  • Natural disasters, pregnancy and baby health are linked. Should Canadians be worried?
  • Behold the ‘OPEC of rainforests’
  • How India’s electric rickshaw revolution is forging a low-carbon future

Natural disasters, pregnancy and baby health are linked. Should Canadians be worried?

(Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Associated Press)

Wading through floodwaters to safety. Being evacuated because of wildfires. Living without power for weeks.

Experiencing a natural disaster is a traumatic event, given that it can lead to property destruction and displacement, not to mention fear, anxiety and even PTSD.

It’s stressful for anyone, but some researchers have been paying particular attention to how people who are pregnant — and ultimately, their babies — are affected. As new U.S. research yet again shows a link between pregnancy during natural disasters and the eventual health of those children, experts say Canadians should take note.

While the Global South is more prone to natural disasters and typically experiences larger-scale devastation, Canada is hardly immune. A 2021 news release from Environment and Climate Change Canada notes that Canadians experienced “unprecedented” extreme weather last year alone.

“With greater climate change, we’re having more frequent, more severe weather events,” said Suzanne King, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.

“These studies are models for what can happen in any of our lives,” said King.

“Canadians and people everywhere should be concerned,” said Dr. David Olson, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and physiology at the University of Alberta.

In the new study, published in September in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers looked at the children of people who were pregnant during Superstorm Sandy. The 2012 hurricane sent floodwaters surging across parts of New York and New Jersey, killing 181 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers without power for days. 

Researchers analyzed data from 163 preschool-aged children, 40.5 per cent of whom were in utero during the hurricane. Those children had “substantially increased” risks for depression, anxiety and attention deficit/disruptive behaviour disorders compared to the other children in the study who were born before the hurricane or conceived just after it, according to the paper.

“We’ve known for some time that maternal stress during pregnancy plays a key role in the mental health development of the child,” said lead researcher Yoko Nomura, a psychology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College, in a news release.

“Understanding these connections and distinctions grows more necessary every day with the increased frequency of natural disasters driven by climate change.” 

King has been studying those connections for decades, over five different natural disasters: the 1998 ice storm that pelted eastern Ontario and southern Quebec; the 2008 Iowa floods; the 2011 floods in Queensland, Australia; the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires; and 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

In general, she said, there is a statistically significant connection between either the hardship of the disaster itself or the pregnant person’s distress during it and the outcome of the child. These can be both physical and mental outcomes, ranging from the child’s IQ, autism-related traits, language development, anxiety and depression and acting out to balance, bilateral co-ordination, body-mass index and brain structure.

“The more the hardship in the pregnancy, the worse the outcome,” King said. But she cautioned that the trauma of a disaster in utero isn’t the only factor in a child’s well-being. There’s a lot more at play in a child’s development, including genetics. 

In the aftermath of the Fort McMurray wildfires, Olson and his team at the University of Alberta studied a sample of people who were pregnant during the evacuations or shortly after, looking at whether there was a connection between the disaster and preterm births. 

There wasn’t one, but in an email interview, Olson noted the children of pregnancies during the disaster remain at risk for “longer-term adverse outcomes.”

“Pregnancy is naturally a time of vulnerability, and women who experience natural disasters during pregnancy are especially vulnerable,” Olson said.

King said research has shown that social support — particularly from the pregnant person’s partner — plays a key role in mitigating the negative effects of a natural disaster. So does ensuring quality prenatal care and continuity of care. A positive outlook can also make a huge difference, King said, pointing to research on people who were pregnant during COVID-19 lockdowns. 

To prepare for natural disasters during pregnancy, the Canadian Red Cross recommends talking to your health-care provider about an evacuation plan, including prenatal vitamins; keeping comfort items and hospital bag items in your emergency kit; and devising a list of medical facilities in surrounding areas in case of evacuation.

Natalie Stechyson

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The Big Picture: The ‘OPEC of rainforests’

As we discussed last week, Brazil’s presidential election in October had broad implications. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who beat incumbent Jair Bolsonaro by a much smaller margin than expected, had campaigned on a program of greater protection of the Amazon rainforest, which is crucial in regulating the global climate and has been aggressively developed on Bolsonaro’s watch. As such, Lula’s victory was touted as a major win for Planet Earth. 

Less than a week after his win, Lula is reportedly already forging alliances with countries similarly endowed with tree cover – the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia — to form what’s being called an “OPEC of rainforests.” These three countries possess 52 per cent of the world’s remaining primary tropical forests — but the Amazon, Congo basin and Borneo and Sumatra forests have been compromised by logging, mining and illegal exploitation. 

Given the carbon-storing power contained in these three countries alone, they could co-ordinate the way OPEC does on oil production, except on trees, with a focus on conservation and carbon markets, where offsets are bought and sold to reduce overall emissions.

(Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

How India’s electric rickshaw revolution is forging a low-carbon future

Electric rickshaws are popular with passengers because trips cost only a few cents and you can pack more people in the back than traditional rickshaws that run on natural gas or diesel. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

A rickshaw weaves in and out of traffic in New Delhi’s Jahangirpuri neighbourhood on a recent morning, looking for passengers before sputtering into a narrow space in a row of brightly coloured three-wheelers to charge its dying battery. 

Behind the wheel is Suman, a 36-year-old mother of four who, like many Indians, goes by only one name. She fought against the wishes of her husband and extended family to drive an electric rickshaw to provide for her children, who range from four to 18 years old. 

“I told them that I don’t care what anyone says — I need to drive to give my daughters a better life,” said Suman.

She is one of many drivers in India’s capital region who see the e-rickshaw as an opportunity to earn more money and be their own boss. Meanwhile, environmental groups and the Indian government view the steep rise in low-cost electric vehicles as a key tool in the country’s fight to reduce carbon emissions.

This is India’s EV revolution, a messy and at times chaotic push that has grown organically over the last decade in the Delhi area and several northern Indian states, which has seen the rapid proliferation of largely unregulated e-rickshaws, some of which can be bought for less than $1,500 Cdn. 

It’s a people-driven model for a green mobility shift, and many experts say it could serve as a template for other developing countries trying to fight climate change and air pollution. 

“If you are looking to embark on a mobility transition, it’s probably better and wiser to look at what’s the path of least resistance,” said Gagan Sidhu, director of the Centre for Energy Finance, housed within the Council of Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi-based think-tank. “Don’t necessarily start at four-wheelers — start at the cheaper end of the spectrum.” 

There are roughly 1.75 million electric three-wheelers in India, according to industry data, although the actual figure is likely higher, since many are not registered or tracked.

In the fiscal year ending in March 2022, some 430,000 electric vehicles were sold in India, more than three times as many as the previous year. The vast majority, 95 per cent, were two- and three-wheelers, according to data compiled by the country’s Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations.

Electric vehicles are still a tiny percentage of total automobile sales, but that proportion is growing quickly, with EVs capturing more than five per cent of the market in August of this year, up from two per cent in 2021.

At a large exposition staged on the outskirts of Delhi in September, booth after booth showcased the latest models from manufacturers of electric vehicles, charging docks and batteries.

“The adoption rate is so high that the future of electric in India is really good,” said Abhimanyu Singh, in charge of northern India corporate sales for Mahindra, which makes rickshaws and other types of electric vehicles. “The running cost of the vehicle is very low and also, it is emission-free. So all of these things combined, it means a very good value case.” 

India’s government sees the value in low-cost electric vehicles, embracing them as part of its wider strategy to reduce carbon emissions. It has prioritized incentives for those buying green, including a tax cut and subsidies for certain EV models. 

The ambitious aim is to have electric cars make up 30 per cent of all automobile sales by 2030, even though current sales of more expensive four-wheel EVs are dismally low. 

Sidhu said that only two four-wheeler models qualify for a subsidy “and the charging infrastructure across India is sorely lacking.”

The government is looking to fix that issue, offering business subsidies to increase the number of public charging stations, currently sitting at 934. That pales in comparison to China’s more than two million charging locales.

The government is committed to promoting the electric transition, even if transportation only accounts for about 10 per cent of India’s total emissions, a far smaller percentage than countries like Canada, where it’s 24 per cent. 

It’s a task with global implications, since India is now the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, lagging behind only China and the United States, even though its per capita emissions are far lower. 

Nearly three-quarters of the country’s power is generated by coal, leaving the end sum of all the e-rickshaws and other battery-powered vehicles on the roads decidedly less green. Still, rickshaw models powered with energy from coal production release fewer greenhouse gas emissions than three-wheelers running on gas. 

Despite the reliance on coal, experts point to India’s electric two- and three-wheeler expansion as a strong local solution, a path that grew spontaneously from the ground up, with little initial support from the government. 

Suman said it’s the economic advantages that attract all of the drivers she knows to EVs, but there are unintended consequences of the rapid growth in e-rickshaws in Delhi: more competition. 

“It used to be better,” she said. “We could make more money.”

Salimah Shivji

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