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Watch Out, Expecting Mothers: Study Suggests Air Pollution May Cause Premature Births

Mar 30, 2016 04:40 AM EDT
Air pollution
A Chinese girl wears a mask as heavy smog covers Beijing, China, last year, prompting the government to put the crisis on "red alert" status.
(Photo : Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Even before they get a taste of air, babies are already affected by air pollution.

A new study suggests that air pollution may be a cause for premature births every year. And not only is it a health hazard for both the mother and the child, but air pollution also showed a huge negative economic impact, not just on the search for environmental solutions, but also on its impact on huge medical costs.

While the study is still not fully clear on its definite connection, there is evidence linking expecting mothers and preterm birth, or delivery three weeks ahead of term. According to a Washington Post report, expecting mothers exposed to air pollution may have inflammation of the placenta that can result in an earlier delivery.

Exposure to tiny particulate matters, or particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, that come from traffic and factory emissions have already been seen as a cause of early deaths and several health problems. This new study suggests that they may be to blame for some premature births as well.

Delivering a baby more than three weeks ahead of the term can cause serious medical issues, including increased risk of developmental delays and in infant mortality, and difficulties in breathing and feeding.

"This really speaks to the need to continue with efforts to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust," said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics, Population Health and Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, and author of the study, as reported by CBS News.

While the health risks of premature births are high, its economic impact is nothing to shrug about either.

The new study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, used data on air pollution from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and data on preterm births from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers discovered that 15,808 preterm births, or 3.32 percent of preterm births nationally, can be attributed to air pollution.

Using the data of direct medical costs obtained from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, the researchers then computed the cost associated with unexpected early delivery.

In 2010, about $760 million were spent for medical care.

The loss in economic productivity as a result of physical and mental disabilities associated with preterm birth amounted to a total cost of $3.57 billion.

These lead to about $4.33 billion of additional costs--a huge impact, not just for families, but also for the economy.

Hopefully, this study will usher in new laws--and strengthen old ones--to fight for cleaner energy and a better environment.

"These kinds of economic data have been very instrumental in being the foundation for policy change," Trasande said.

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