Premature births have dropped in this country, but are still too high
Nearly 16,000 premature births in this country are linked to air pollution, and they come at a hefty price tag of $4.33 billion a year.
That total includes $760 million spent on lengthy hospital stays and long-term use of medications and $3.57 billion in lost economic productivity due to physical and mental disabilities associated with preterm birth.
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The new analysis, published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first to examine the costs of premature births due to air pollution in the United States. Air pollution increases toxic chemicals in the blood, causing immune system stress, which can weaken the placenta surrounding the fetus and lead to preterm birth.
“Air pollution comes with a tremendous cost, not only in terms of human life, but also in terms of the associated economic burden to society,” said lead study investigator Leonardo Trasande, professor at the New York University Langone Medical Center. “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.”
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine. They calculated average air pollution exposure and the number of premature births per county, and then tabulated estimates of the long-term health implications of premature birth as detailed in more than six previous investigations and computer models that focused on early death, decreased IQ, work absences due to frequent hospitalizations and overall poor health.
The national percentage of premature births in the U.S. has declined from a peak of 12.8 percent in 2006 to 11.4 percent in 2013, its lowest level in nearly two decades, but the number is still well above those of other developed countries. In spite of the drop, African-American women have double the rates of preterm births. And the decline is insufficient to meet the goal of 8.1 percent by 2020 set by the March of Dimes.
[Related: Why African Americans Should Care About Ozone Pollution]
The number of pre-term births linked to air pollution was highest in urban counties, primarily in Southern California and in the Eastern U.S., with peak numbers in the Ohio River Valley.
Further research is needed to look into the role of specific outdoor air pollutants, especially particulate matter, and whether any stages of pregnancy are more susceptible to their negative effects, including increased risk of heart and lung diseases.