Air Pollution & Heat Are Hurting Babies — Especially Black Babies

July 1, 2020
newborn baby

At Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the pictures we display are of adorable babies of all races and colors, often being cared for by happy, healthy, beautiful model parents. It’s hard to think of a bigger contrast between the images on the HBBF website and the brutality of the scene of George Floyd’s murder.

The police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and thousands of others is one deadly form of racial bias that must be fully addressed now.  As a campaign focused on lowering neurotoxic exposures that are harming babies’ brains, HBBF isn’t equipped to address police violence and criminal justice. But we still have a part to play in creating a more equitable, just, and healthy world for all babies.

The racism built into law enforcement is also endemic in housing, food access, water, and air quality. HBBF’s projects on lead in homes and drinking water and on toxic chemicals in prepared baby foods and air pollution all address neurotoxic problems that disproportionately impact babies of color. In the future, we will be more explicit about the racist aspect of any issue we are working on. And that future begins now.

Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a systemic review of recent studies on the link between the environmental problems of air pollution and extreme heat and the health problems of preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. The bottom line — air pollution and extreme heat days are making it harder for women in the United States to have healthy pregnancies. The risk of harm is worst for black pregnant women, as well as for pregnant women with asthma.

Some details:

  • The review combined the findings of 68 studies published from 2007 to 2019 that included the outcomes of almost 33 million births in the United States. Fifty-eight studies focused on the connection between air pollution and birth outcomes and 10 on heat and its impact on pregnancies. Of the 58 air pollution studies, 48 (84%) found a significant connection between exposure to air pollutants and adverse birth outcomes.
  • Babies born before 37 weeks gestation face a higher risk of cerebral palsy and cognitive, sensory, language, visual-perceptual, attention and learning deficits, according to the Institute of Medicine. Nineteen of the 24 studies show an averaged 11.5% increased risk of preterm birth because of air pollution. Ten of the 19 studies looked at the factor of race. Eight of those 10 found an increased risk for black mothers.
  • Twenty-nine studies looked at the link between pollution and low birth weight, a risk factor for lower IQ and other adverse neurological impacts. Twenty-five showed an increased risk. Thirteen looked for association with racial/ethnic disparities. Ten of the 13 found the black mothers were at higher risk (77%), four of the 13 (31%) showed a higher risk of low birth weight among Asian mothers because of pollution and three (23%) of the studies found a greater risk of low birth weight babies caused by air pollution in Hispanic pregnant women. A Florida study reported a three percent increased risk of low birth weight for every three miles of proximity to an operating solid waste incinerator.  
  • While the JAMA authors identified fewer studies on still birth and air pollution, four of the five found a link between the two factors. In an analysis of more than 350,000 births in Ohio, stillbirth risk increased 42% with high third-trimester exposure to air pollution.
  • Like air pollution, heat hurts birth outcomes. Nine of 10 included studies found a connection: Preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirths all increase when it is extremely hot. One study found that extremely low temperatures were also significantly associated with low birth weight. Two studies in California found the highest risk among black mothers. Racial disparities for extreme heat and cold exposures are well established and involve factors that span urban heat island impacts and lack of access to adequate air conditioning and heat.

The burning of fossil fuels is the major source of the air pollution and climate change that is causing more extreme outdoor temperatures. The burning of fossil fuels is also an act of violence that attacks a woman’s ability to have a healthy child. And black women and their babies are being hurt worst. 

Healthy Babies Bright Futures exists to turn good science into real protections for babies’ brains. The JAMA Systemic Review on the Association of Air Pollution and Heat Exposure with Preterm Birth, Low Birth Weight, and Stillbirth in the US is a call to action for HBBF and everyone else to do more to end the burning of fossil fuels to protect the neurodevelopment of babies. And to focus on the solutions that will do the most to lower the risk for the black mothers and babies who are most at risk.