New Study: Premature Births Caused by Dirty Air Cost the US $4 billion a Year

by jim on March 30, 2016

premies_2 2There are no shortages of studies linking bad air with birth defects and premature births. But until now no one has taken on the task of trying to add up the national toll in both lives and money.

In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives on Tuesday, UCLA researchers estimated that almost 16,000 premature births across the country in 2010 — about 3 percent of the nationwide total of 475,368 — were related to exposure to high levels of "air polution" – in this case the insideous and ubiquitos Particulate Matter, or PM.  These premie births cost the system $4.33 billion, including $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 mental disabilities associated with preterm birth. 

"For policy makers, decisions about regulating air pollution come down to a trade off between the cost of preventing air pollution and the health and economic benefits of limiting air pollution sources," study author Dr. Leonardo Trasande, associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics, Population Health and Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. "Without data documenting the health effects of air pollution on preterm births, there's only one side to that discussion. So what we did was to quantify the disease burden and economic cost associated with preterm birth that could be traced to air pollution."

Developing fetuses are very vulnerable to pollutants of all kinds. That's why doctors tell women not to smoke during pregnancy. Exposures to high levels of air pollution increases toxic chemicals in the blood and can weaken the immune system, causing stress to the placenta and leading to preterm birth (defined as birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy)

PM pollution represents a threat because the particles are so tiny and fine they pass from your lung right into your blood stream and go where ever the flow takes them – to your heart, your liver, your brain. PM can also act as a kind of toxic suitcase for whatever other polutants came out of the same smokestack or exhaust pipe – metals, endocrine disruptors, etc. 

Premature babies face greater risk of health issues including heart and breathing problems, weaker immune systems, anemia, jaundice and other complications. Longterm, while many preemies grow up healthy, they can be more likely face hearing or vision problems or developmental disabilities.

The study authors emphasized that this burden is preventable and say they plan to share their findings with policymakers in an effort to help shape regulations and laws designed to reduce air pollution. 

"This really speaks to the need to continue with efforts to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants and vehicle exhaust," Trasande said. We have some of those in Texas. 

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