We’ve spent the last couple of days examining the American Lung Association’s important and informative annual report on the State of the Air — 2016. Marie Ellis sums things up as she addresses a new study that puts a price tag on one adverse health effect:

The adverse health effects of air pollution are great in number. Among the list are asthma, throat irritation, eye and skin irritation, sudden illness and even death. But air pollution also increases toxic chemicals in the blood, causing stress on the immune system and weakening the placenta surrounding a fetus. This can lead to preterm birth, and now, researchers say the financial burden of this chain reaction is in the billions each year.


Researchers estimate that 16,000 premature births result from air pollution exposure during pregnancy, specifically from fine particulate matter (PM2.5, or particle sizes of 2.5 microns or less). Minorities and low-income families are most affected, according to Justin Worland:

Researchers behind the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that preterm births associated with particulate matter—a type of pollutant—led to more than $4 billion in economic costs in 2010 due to medical care and lost productivity that results from disability. And, like many other public health issues, affected populations tend to be concentrated in low-income areas home to large numbers of minorities.

“This is another piece of the evidentiary pie about why we should really be doing something about air pollution,” says Tracey Woodruff, a professor who studies reproductive health and the environment at the University of California, San Francisco. “When you reduce air pollution you get lots of different health benefits.”


Worland says PM2.5’s mechanism of action on a developing fetus may involve a specific endocrine disruption:

Countless studies have shown the effect of air pollution on cardiovascular and respiratory health—killing millions each year. Air pollution leads to inflammation in blood vessels and contributes to lung cancer, asthma and a slew of other disorders. The effect on pregnancy may in some ways be an extension of those effects as air pollution disrupts the way a pregnant woman delivers oxygen to the fetus. Air pollution may also disrupt the endocrine system, keeping women from producing a protein needed to regulate pregnancy, researchers say.


Lisa Rapaport adds up the costs:

Annual costs associated with these preemies include nearly $3.6 billion (about 3.2 billion euros) in lost wages and productivity due to physical and mental deficits tied to the early arrivals as well as $760 million (about 678 million euros) for extended hospitalizations and long-term use of medications, researchers calculated.

“Air pollution-associated preterm birth contributes direct medical costs in the first few years of life due to associated conditions, such as in the newborn intensive care unit, as well as lost economic productivity due to developmental disabilities and lost cognitive potential,” lead study author Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an environmental health researcher at New York University School of Medicine in New York City, said by email.


The medical consensus is that public policies and personal measures are both needed to reduce the risk:

Limiting the effect of air pollution on preterm births requires improved air quality, which might be achieved through efforts such as cleaner energy technology, more public transportation, improved paths for cycling and walking, and positioning schools and daycare centers far from highways, Lanphear noted.

Women should also seek prenatal care early in pregnancy, particularly when they have had miscarriages or preterm births before, said Dr. Shruthi Mahalingaiah, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study.


It’s important that we all acknowledge the health problems air pollution causes and do all we can to reduce it. Tomorrow we’ll look at “10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Unhealthy Air” from the American Lung Association.


(Image: Medical News Today/NYU Langone Medical Center)