Study: Premature Births Drop After Coal, Oil Power Plants Shut Down

The rate of premature births to California mothers living near coal and oil power plants dropped significantly after the plants were shut down, researchers from the University of California and Johns Hopkins University reported in a recent study.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, analyzed birth records for nearly 60,000 mothers who lived within about three miles of eight power plants that were shut down between 2001 and 2011. Researchers found that after these outdated and inefficient plants closed, air pollution emissions decreased dramatically, and within a year the rate of preterm births declined by more than one-fourth. The decline was greatest for mothers living closest to the plants, particularly among African-Americans and Latinas.

The clear connection was a big surprise to the researchers.

“The ‘aha’ moment was probably just seeing what a large, estimated effect size we got,” lead author Joan A. Casey, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, told Inside Climate News. “We were pretty shocked by it – to the point that we did many, many additional analyses to try to make it go away, and didn't succeed.”

The findings join an array of studies demonstrating the harmful effects of air pollution, particularly car and power plant emissions, on the developing fetus and the health of a newborn child. Children born prematurely are often at a higher risk of chronic diseases during childhood and later in life, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.

In a groundbreaking study published in 2012, Columbia University researchers reported that children born to mothers who lived in urban neighborhoods with more polluted air were twice as likely to be obese by age 7. Recently, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that mothers’ exposure to air pollution during pregnancy increases the risk for high blood pressure in their young children.

“High blood pressure in children portends high blood pressure in adults, which leads to higher cardiovascular disease risk,” Noel T. Mueller, one of the authors of the Johns Hopkins study, told The New York Times.  

Heart health, weight management and healthy metabolism are regulated by a fine-tuned hormonal network that orchestrates communication between the brain and other organs. Eating a good diet and exercising during pregnancy is important for the health of both the mother and the developing fetus. So is limiting exposure to toxic chemicals in consumer products.

But outdoor air quality isn’t something individuals can directly control. Protecting children from harmful pollution from power plants and cars will require fundamental changes in energy policy.

Rachel Morello-Frosch, a UC Berkeley professor and co-author of the study on premature births, told EWG that the findings “highlight the community health benefits of climate and energy policy shifts.”

This is why the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back air pollution standards for coal plants and mileage standards for automobiles aren’t just economic issues, but severe threats to children’s health. For kids’ sake, we must all join the fight for clean air.

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