Air Pollution Near Power Plants Tied to Premature Births

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Closing coal- and oil-fired power plants is associated with a reduction in preterm births in the surrounding region, researchers report.

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Closing coal- and oil-fired power plants is associated with a reduction in preterm births in the surrounding region, researchers report.

Scientists counted the number of preterm babies born in regions surrounding eight power plants before and after their closings from 2001 to 2011. The study is in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Based on the mother’s home address, the researchers looked at preterm birthrates within three, six and 12 miles of each plant in the year before and the year after closing. There were 57,005 births, 28,083 before the plants closed. Air pollution levels after closing decreased to an average of four tons of nitrogen oxides per year from 177 tons before.

The prevalence of preterm birth decreased significantly near power plants after they closed, with larger decreases in women who lived closer to the plants. For those living within three miles of the plants, the preterm birthrate was 5.1 percent after closing compared with 7.0 percent before.

“This is closer to a causal effect than in some previous studies,” said the lead author, Joan A. Casey, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “Here we have a natural experiment that can effectively randomize women to different levels of air pollution, something we can’t do ethically under other circumstances.”

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