Preemies, Traffic, Air Pollution: A Costly Mix

BY ON May 13, 2016

Traffic illustration

Scientists affiliated with the University of California did a study in 2009, of infants born in Long Beach targeting areas with an overlap of freeways and truck transport. They correlated the patterns of traffic with home addresses, and stats on levels of exposure to nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. They found that air pollution emanating specifically from vehicles was tied to the increased possibility of women giving birth prematurely — as well as to incidences of preeclampsia. They sampled over 81,000 babies. The possibility of giving birth before 30 weeks increased 128 percent for women in locations where high numbers of cars and trucks were responsible for air pollution.

In April, researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center published findings in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives that puts forth the premise that 16,000 premature births are “linked” to air pollution. The core goal was to examine resulting costs to the economy — which hit the price tag of $4.33 billion per year. The study was written by Leonardo Trasande, Patrick Malecha, and Teresa M. Attina. It noted that urban areas were the greatest affected. The time period examined was 2010.

Their conclusion stated: “PM2.5 may contribute substantially to burden and costs of preterm births in the United States, and considerable health and economic benefits could be achieved through environmental regulatory interventions that reduce PM2.5 exposure in pregnancy.”

The top takeaway is the premise that an increase in “toxic chemicals in the blood” is caused by air pollution. This leads to “immune system stress, which can weaken the placenta surrounding the fetus and lead to preterm birth.”

A related paper published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology took a look at how air pollution impacted expectant women with asthma — and preterm births. Their conclusions found, “Mothers with asthma may experience a higher risk for preterm birth after exposure to traffic-related pollutants such as CO and NOx, particularly for exposures three-months preconception and in the early weeks of pregnancy.”

Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics at NYU, was widely quoted underscoring the cost to society — in terms of both health and finances — that air pollution causes. He also observed, “It is also important to note that this burden is preventable, and can be reduced by limiting emissions from automobiles and coal-fired power plants.”

The press release from NYU stated that Trasande will be sharing the [authors] “findings with policymakers in an effort to help shape regulations and laws designed to reduce air pollution and protect public health.”

Perhaps that is why the American Council on Science and Health had a negative response to the research, headlining their article with a title claiming that the study “misses it mark.” The ACSH logo boasts the tagline, “Science. Not Hype.” It also has a history of funders that was examined by Mother Jones in their 2013 article, “Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of a Pro-Industry Science Group.” Some of their top endowments came from American Petroleum, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and tobacco companies. The ACSH piece references a 2012 study conducted in the Netherlands, except that research looks at particulate matter which is coarse (PM10). Trasande is studying very specific subset, which is fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

Funny how one thing connects to another.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), the National League of Cities (NLC), and over fifty county and city governments from twenty-eight states have joined an amicus brief which was filed on April 4 by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. The brief lays out why the Clean Power Plan is essential to the safety, public health, and the economy of their vicinities.

There are a lot of conflicting interests at play. I’m hoping that candidates running for office in November — up and down the ticket — are going to be asked exactly where they stand on climate science, medical research, and the agendas of certain business interests because our children need their protection right now.

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TOPICS: Air Pollution, Asthma, California, Cars and Trucks, Pregnancy