Who Knew? Healthy Babies Require Clean Air

It’s not hard to find people who say they want to breathe clean air.

However, propose any measures to make the air cleaner, and you’ll have a political firestorm on your hands. In fact, measures such as eliminating or completely gutting the Environmental Protection Agency pass for mainstream conservative talking points these days.

But research is increasingly tying poor air quality to long-term health problems that begin at birth. Studies have shown, for example, that carbon monoxide related to automobile emissions harms fetal health.

Nancy Folbre asks the right question on her New York Times blog:

Greater publicity for economic research on the impact of regulation might quiet critics of the Environmental Protection Agency, who often focus on its short-term costs rather than its long-term benefits. Would changing its name — perhaps to the Environmental Child-Protection Agency — help win over the family-values crowd?

When it comes to creating a better environment that helps improve overall human health, we need all the allies we can get. Sometimes a carefully-crafted argument can go a long way.

Here is another excerpt from the interesting blog, which can be read in its entirety here.

Epidemiologists and economists have long agreed that low birth weight is an important, albeit approximate, predictor of future health problems. A wealth of new economic research tracing individuals over time shows that it is also an approximate predictor of future earnings problems, with statistical effects almost as strong as children’s test scores.

Among other things, low birth weight increases the probability of suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and lowers the probability of graduating from high school.

In the current American Economic Review, Janet Currie of Princeton, a pioneer in this new area of research, summarizes recent findings and points out that children of black mothers who dropped out of high school are three times as likely as children of white college-educated mothers to suffer low birth weight.

Many of the mechanisms that underlie this inequality are linked to characteristics of the physical environment, such as exposure to environmental toxins.

For instance, carbon monoxide related to automobile emissions harms fetal health. Detailed statistical analysis of families in New Jersey shows that moving from an area with high levels of carbon monoxide to one with lower levels has an effect on birth weight larger than persuading a woman who was smoking 10 cigarettes a day during pregnancy to quit.

Another memorable illustration of carbon monoxide effects comes from a study of the impact of E-ZPass electronic technologies, which improve infant health by reducing auto emissions in neighborhoods close to highway toll booths.

Exposure to toxic air pollutants and waste dumps (like Superfund cleanup sites) both lowers birth weight and increases the risks of premature and infant death.

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