Nearly 6 years ago, I found out what it’s like to be the mother of babies who are born too soon.
It was early March, during a week when all the spring flowers in Durham, North Carolina, had burst into full bloom. My twins were born at 34 weeks, and instead of spending the first week of their lives strolling them outside in the glorious spring weather, we spent the week making an exhausting commute back and forth to the neonatal intensive care unit at Duke University. Though both twins gained strength quickly, there were frightening moments—without treatment for respiratory distress syndrome, my daughter may not have survived, and we did not get to hold her until she was several days old. The moments that my husband and I should have spent resting peacefully at home enjoying life as a new family of four were instead spent sitting by two incubators, watching our tiny babies hooked up to breathing and feeding tubes.
One of the things that breaks my heart the most about air pollution is its impact on babies and children. Air pollution has been linked to a range of adverse health impacts, among the most devastating of which is premature birth. Premature birth is a leading risk factor for infant mortality, and in my home state of North Carolina, prematurity accounts for approximately 1 in 5 infant deaths. The impacts of air pollution on premature birth aren’t distributed evenly—research shows that Black mothers and babies are affected most by the health risks of air pollution exposure during pregnancy, making this an issue of environmental justice.
In 2011, five years before I became a mother, the EPA introduced the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were protective measures designed to keep dangerous levels of mercury out of the air. Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal that is found in coal, and when coal is burned for fuel, toxic mercury is released into the air. From there, it falls onto waterways like rivers and lakes and enters the food chain when it accumulates in the fish we eat. When contaminated fish are eaten during pregnancy, mercury can cross the placental and blood-brain barriers and get into babies’ developing brains, causing impaired motor function, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems in children.
In addition to reducing toxic mercury emissions, MATS also cut other forms of air pollution from power plants—just as air pollution has been linked to premature birth, it has also been linked to higher rates of pregnancy loss, respiratory problems, heart problems, premature death, and worsened mental health. Each of these health harms has a deeply personal impact on individual lives and families. It’s a win for public health that since MATS was implemented, mercury emissions are down 86%, acid gas hazardous air pollutants have been cut by 96%, and non-mercury metal hazardous air pollutants have been reduced by 81%, according to EPA data.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are protections that safeguard our families’ health—and especially the health of our babies and children. We need MATS to be as strong as possible, so that no parent has to experience what it’s like to have a child who has been poisoned by mercury, and so that air pollution is never the reason that babies spend their first days of life in hospital incubators.
TO LEARN MORE about mercury’s impact on health and the history of mercury protections in the US, read our new fact sheet: Mercury 101