The results, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry on Wednesday show that children who were in the womb during the devastating 2012 superstorm Sandy had a “substantially increased risk” in early childhood of developing depression and anxiety, as well as attention deficit disorders and disruptive behavioral disorders.
Scientists have long known that maternal stress during pregnancy can jeopardize a child’s mental health, said Yoko Nomura, a psychology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College in New York who led the study. Still, she said she found the results “alarming.
“I was really surprised,” she said.
Hurricane Sandy was a powerful, climate change-driven storm that devastated Jamaica and part of Latin America before hurtling north and impacting the east coast of the United States. The storm killed 44 people in New York and caused an estimated $19 billion in damage.
Nomura was conducting a study in New York City at the time of the storm on the effects of psychosocial stress during pregnancy. She knew she needed to investigate Sandy’s implications, so she quickly turned around.
For the report, Nomura and other researchers from the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai analyzed 163 preschoolers in New York City whose mothers had lived in parts of New York City that had hit Sandy particularly hard. The researchers examined the children’s health records and asked her parents every year after the storm. 66 of the children were in the womb during the hurricane; the remaining 97 were born before the storm or not yet conceived.
All of the parents of the 163 children experienced some form of trauma as a result of Sandy, Nomura said. Half had to be evacuated in the storm’s wake, and another tenth had to be evacuated before it touched down. The remaining participants opened their homes to others displaced by the storm. Participants described other stressors such as damage to their homes and neighborhoods, problems with insurance companies, power outages and weeks of loss of income after the storm.
The discrepancies were striking. Fifty-three percent of children exposed to Hurricane Sandy while in the womb showed significant signs of an anxiety disorder, compared to just 22 percent of children who were not. And about 30 percent of the exposed group were tested for attention deficit disorders or disruptive behavior disorders, compared with just over 8 percent of those who weren’t.
A puzzling result of the new study: Mental disorders vary according to biological sex. Specifically, the researchers found that female children exposed to Sandy had a far greater risk of developing anxiety disorders, while exposed males had an increased risk of attention deficit disorders and disruptive behavioral disorders.
The new research is part of a growing body of work on the risks the climate crisis poses to fetuses and pregnant women. A 2019 study found that pregnancy complications increased by almost 17% shortly after Sandy, with the highest increases seen among uninsured people and people of color. Other recent studies have also linked extreme heat to gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and increased rates of stillbirth and low birth weight. And last summer, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued guidance on the link between extreme temperatures and irregular birth outcomes.
New research results are also bringing more focus to the effects of climate change on mental health. In February, a landmark report from the world’s leading climate science body highlighted this toll for the first time, predicting an increase in anxiety and stress as the planet continues to warm.
Ari Bernstein, a Boston-based pediatrician who directs Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment and didn’t work on the paper, said the new study drives those findings forward.
“We strangely believe that climate change-related disasters only matter when they happen,” he said. “These results bring a harsh correction to this misconception.”
In a way, the new report raises as many questions as it answers. It fails to elicit a causal link between fetal hurricane exposure and mental health problems, Nomura said. It cannot be determined whether the results can be extrapolated to other natural catastrophes. And, importantly, it doesn’t explain the mechanisms behind its own findings.
“The most confusing thing that the study still leaves unanswered is ‘why,'” said Dr. Jeffrey Newcorn, director of the Division of ADHD, Learning Disabilities and Related Disorders at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a study co-author, said. “Why is this happening? What are the mechanisms by which this type of exposure to stress produces these types of outcomes? What can we do to mitigate this?” These questions are all still open.
But the study is a window into the strange and frightening ways climate disasters can threaten well-being, which is especially important as disasters become more frequent and severe as the planet warms.
Newcorn said he hopes the work will stimulate more research – and research funding – into how climate-related events exacerbate maternal prenatal stress.
And Amruta Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, who did not work on the study, said she hopes it will lead to more support for vulnerable populations.
“The study demonstrates the need to provide additional services to vulnerable populations when extreme weather conditions are forecast, including services for pregnant women and newborns,” she said.
The findings come amid growing concerns about the impact of climate disasters on young people’s mental health. On Thursday morning, advocates for the Moms Clean Air Force advocacy group met with federal officials and youth organizers for a news conference to support a federal bill aimed at increasing funding for resources to support the mental health of young people affected by climate change .
Still, “the lifelong consequences of negative experiences in the womb are often underestimated,” says Taylor Morris, a senior fellow at The Health Policy Partnership, who has written about the risks that climate change poses to fetal health and did not collaborate on the study . She hopes the study will help change that, she said.
Dharna Noor can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.