Thousands Of Premature Births In U.S. Linked To Air Pollution, Study Finds

March 29, 2016

About 16,000 premature births in the United States are affected by air pollution, with peak numbers in urban counties primarily in the Ohio Valley, Southern California, and the Eastern part of the nation, a new study finds.

The study, published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, was conducted by Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, a professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, and colleagues who compiled and examined data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Institute of Medicine to calculate average air pollution exposure and the number of premature births per county.

“This article by Trasande and colleagues adds to the growing number of reports linking air pollution to preterm birth,” says Edward R.B. McCabe, MD, PhD, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the March of Dimes. “While such epidemiologic studies cannot demonstrate causation between these pollutants and preterm birth, or that the association is with these specific small particulates, we cannot ignore the weight of the evidence.”

“Air pollution has health effects that can be all but invisible to us,” says Cynthia Pellegrini, the March of Dimes senior vice president for Public Policy and Government Affairs. “This new study brings to light the fact that air pollution may harm pregnant women and their babies in real and costly ways. This critical information allows policymakers to understand the full impacts of particulate matter air pollution as they consider strategies for reducing its various forms.”

The study authors 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 ill health. They estimated that preterm births linked to air pollution in the U.S. cost the nation $4.33 billion annually. This total includes $760 million spent on prolonged hospital stays and long-term use of medications, as well as $3.57 billion in lost economic productivity due to physical and intellectual disabilities associated with preterm birth.

Premature birth -- defined as birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy – is the number one killer of babies in the U.S, and affects nearly 380,000 annually. Babies who survive an early birth often face serious and lifelong health problems, including breathing problems, jaundice, vision loss, cerebral palsy, and intellectual delays.

“Particulate Matter Exposure and Preterm Birth: Estimates of U.S. Attributable Burden and Economic Costs,” by Dr. Trasande, Patrick Malecha, BS, and Teresa M. Attina, MD, PhD, MPH, appears in Environmental Health Perspectives from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.