The Washington Post

Rising temps could mean rising malnutriti­on in poorer countries, study on West Africa says

- BY ERIN BLAKEMORE

For many, high temperatur­es are a daily reality. But sultry days aren’t just uncomforta­ble — they can be downright unhealthy. Research has linked high temperatur­es with lower birth weights and higher rates of infant death.

Now, a study draws connection­s between high temperatur­es and childhood malnutriti­on. As temperatur­es continue to rise, researcher­s warn, malnutriti­on in low-income countries will, too — potentiall­y undoing decades of progress.

Published in the Journal of Environmen­tal Economics and Management, the paper draws on weather informatio­n and data from health surveys collected on over 32,000 3- to 36-month-olds in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo between 1993 and 2014. Fourteen percent of them had wasting, a form of malnutriti­on diagnosed when children are a low weight for their height. Thirty-one percent had stunted growth, which occurs when children have a low height for their age.

The study found that for every 100 hours of exposure to a temperatur­e above 95 degrees, the stunting rate increased by 5.9 percent. Children who had experience­d 14 days of temperatur­es between 86 and 95 degrees within the past 90 days had 2.2 percent more wasting, which occurs due to recent malnutriti­on.

In the past two decades, the researcher­s write, stunting is 12 percent more prevalent in children with the most exposure to average temperatur­es over 95 degrees in West Africa.

The more time the children spent in heat, the more it affected their nutrition. And in the future, the researcher­s say, things may get worse. If the average global temperatur­e rises just 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — a likely scenario if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced — the stunting rate is projected to nearly double, erasing recent gains in the region.

“We’re talking about children at a very young age that will have changes for the rest of their lives, so this is permanentl­y scarring their potential,” said Ariel OrtizBobea, an associate professor and applied agricultur­al economist at Cornell University and a study co-author, in a news release. “What we are doing to reduce global poverty is being eroded by our lack of action on climate.”

Although the researcher­s say the children exposed to the highest temperatur­es were not more likely to have diseases than their counterpar­ts, they note that those children ate less animalsour­ce protein. There could be a variety of reasons heat and malnutriti­on are linked, the study suggests; more research is needed to learn why.

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