Human Development and Climate Change

Climate change may increase risks of birth defects and early childhood exposure to substances that can impact development. Exposure to chemicals and heavy metals (for example, lead, mercury, and arsenic), whether through air, water, or food contamination, have been shown to impact human development at varying levels. Exposure to herbicides and pesticides can increase the risk of developmental changes, which is of particular concern since climate change is expected to increase weeds and pests. With harmful algal blooms expected to increase, pregnant women could have a greater risk of exposing a developing human to biotoxins.

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It is important for pregnant women and their families to understand how climate change may impact their child’s development, and to take necessary preventative measures.

Climate change is also expected to impact food supply and distribution, which would have adverse impacts on maternal health and fetal development. Poor nutrition in pregnancy can cause developmental deficits in children. Our decisions and actions can influence the degree to which our community will experience these impacts to our health. Being proactive and making decisions now to safeguard health will help us be more resilient.

Who is most at risk?

Risk factors vary. However, people involved in farming and ranching operations, and their families, can have increased exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Pregnant women and children who eat a lot of fish or shellfish can have increased risk of exposure to biotoxins and methylmercury.

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This chart can help you how to decide which fish to eat and how often, based on mercury levels.  Chart Source: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How can we adapt?

  • Provide pregnant women with access to prenatal health care and early intervention services, and plan for sustaining these services during and after extreme events.
  • Support the services that provide women with access to healthy and nutritious foods, and prepare to sustain those services in a changing climate that poses threats to food supply and distribution.
  • Educate pregnant women about recommendations for fish and shellfish consumption.
  • Ensure the safety of food and water supply and distribution systems and prepare strategies for responding to extreme weather events that could contaminate and/or disrupt food and water supplies.
  • Encourage hunters to use lead-free bullets to reduce lead exposure.

Next, read about Mental Health and Climate Change.

Or, learn about climate change as a health opportunity.


Some of the content found on this page is summarized from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States“, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change“, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “When Every Drop Counts” to briefly describe some of the possible health outcomes that are most relevant to Blackfeet Country. This page does not include all possible health impacts and outcomes, nor does it include all possible risks and responses.

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