Costs and Consequences of Premature Births Attributable to Air Pollution
April 8, 2016
A recent report published in Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that pre-term births attributable to air pollution cost the US $5.09 billion in 2010 alone.
Previous studies linked a mother's exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy with her increased risk for premature delivery and low infant birth weight. However, the new study is unique because it is the first to measure the burden and economic costs of such births.
To do this, researchers from various specialty divisions analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. They found that the US spent $760 million in 2010 on medical care costs for pre-term birth-related outcomes, and lost $4.3 billion in anticipated economic productivity.
Pre-term birth-related outcomes can include lowered cognitive capacity, reduced ability to work, and higher risks for developmental disabilities and comorbidity. In the long term, these outcomes can also result in higher governmental expenditures for Social Security insurance.
The researchers also examined Environmental Health Perspectives data on almost four million live births across 48 states. Of these, 475,000 were pre-term births and 15,808 of those births could be attributed to particulate matter such as smoke, ash, soot, dirt, and dust. Counties in the Ohio Valley and southern U.S. saw the highest percentages of pre-term births attributable to air pollution, while Wyoming and New Mexico had the lowest percentages.
The full effects of particulate matter on pregnant mothers need more research, but their effect on the general public is well-known. Smoke, ash, soot, dirt, and dust particles smaller than 2.5 microns are dangerous to human health because they can aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease; make their way into the lungs and damage lung tissues; and even Infiltrate into the bloodstream and alter the body's defense systems against foreign materials. In some cases they can lead to cancer and even premature death.
As of 2011, 124 million individuals lived in areas where the criteria air pollutant levels were above the standards set by the EPA. In light of the study's findings linking particulate matter to pre-term birth rates and substantial health and economic losses over a lifetime, this is worrisome.
According to the study, limiting exposure to air pollutants and reducing the pre-term birth rate will lower the risk of neonatal complications and mitigate the potential adverse psychological, behavioral, and educational outcomes that pre-term babies can experience later in life.
These findings highlight the health benefits of actions to reduce air pollution, such as reducing vehicle emissions, limiting air emissions from industry, capturing emissions from coal-fired power plants, or better yet, phasing out coal-fired power and replacing it with renewable energy sources.
The full report from Environment Health Perspectives is available here.