As the Environmental Protection Agency awaits an announcement from President Obama on his choice for their new leader, the public should brace itself for a contentious road to a confirmation. The hearings are sure to bring out the anti-regulation, science doubters who deny the efficacy of protecting the nation’s air, water, and land.
Hopefully, before they prepare their queries, they will have read the results from a study published this week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It posits, “Maternal exposure to outdoor air pollution is associated with low birth weight.” To date, it stands as the most comprehensive examination on the subject. Data was gathered and analyzed from over three million births at fourteen sites in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and North America.
To learn more, I interviewed the co-principal investigator on the study, Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD. She explained how the International Collaboration on Air Pollution and Pregnancy Outcomes (ICAPPO) was founded in 2007 to study both the interrelationship between air pollution and pregnancy outcomes, and to “work with researchers around the world to establish a common format for aggregating data.”
The findings are compelling. The higher the pollution level, the greater the rate of low birth babies.
What is low birth weight and why is it so important? A full term infant delivered at below 5.5 pounds is considered to be low birth weight, and therefore at risk for potentially critical health consequences during the first twelve months of life. During childhood there is a greater possibility for developmental delays. In adult life, cardiovascular concerns as well as metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, may occur.
How is a pregnant woman exposed to particulate air pollution at risk? It can be directly through her health, as in how the heart, lungs, and respiratory system are impacted by the pollution. Adverse effects can also travel via her blood stream to the developing fetus, making it susceptible to “congenital anomalies.”
Describing what constitutes particulate matter in the air, Woodruff described “microscopic particles” that are more minuscule than the “width of a human hair.” These particles are in the air we breathe. They are by-products of what Woodruff termed “combustion sources.” This includes fossil fuel exhaust from cars and buses, emissions from coal-fired power plants, the burning of oil for home heating and factories, and trash incinerators.
I asked Woodruff about the common argument put forth by those opposing clean air laws—the concern for jobs and the economy. Woodruff was unequivocal in her response. “The health benefits outweigh the costs,” underscoring the dollars that are lost to hospital expenditures and medical bills. (It has been pointed out in conversations on the budget quandary, that exploding health care fees account for a large percentage of the deficit.)
The data used was collected during the mid-1990s through the late-2000s. Woodruff pointed to the fact that “nations with tighter regulations on particulate air pollution have lower levels of these air pollutants.” As a matter of comparison, a look at particulate air pollution (which is measured in size and weight) shows that in America, the annual average concentration in the air is required by federal standards to be no greater than 12 micrograms per cubic meter. However, the European Union is sustaining 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Now, the European Union is deliberating upon whether to make the guidelines more stringent.
The extreme is the particulate air pollution in Beijing, China, which was recently found to be at 700 micrograms per cubic meter.
A co-author of the study, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, PhD, who is affiliated with the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, commented on the situation in China. He said, “From the perspective of world health, levels like this are obviously completely unsustainable.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Nieuwenhuijsen emphasized the idea, “This study comes at the right time to bring the issue to the attention of policy makers.”
We owe it to our future citizens to make certain this suggestion doesn’t fall upon deaf ears.