Shuttering coal- and oil-fired power plants lowers the rate of preterm births in neighboring communities and improves fertility, according to two new University of California, Berkeley, studies.
The researchers compared preterm births and fertility before and after eight power plants in California closed between 2001 and 2011, including San Francisco’s Hunters Point plant in 2006.
Overall, the percentage of preterm births—babies born before 37 weeks of gestation—dropped from 7 percent in a year-long period before plant closure to 5.1 percent for the year after shutdown. Rates for non-Hispanic African-American and Asian women dropped even more: from 14.4 percent to 11.3 percent.
Preterm births, which can often result in babies spending time in a neonatal intensive care unit, contributes to infant mortality and can cause health problems later in life. The World Health Organization estimates that the cost of preterm births, defined as births between 32 and 37 weeks of gestation, accounts for some $2 billion in healthcare costs worldwide.
The 20-25 percent drop in preterm birthrates is larger than expected, but consistent with other studies linking birth problems to air pollution around power plants, said UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Joan Casey, the lead author of a study to be published May 22 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Another paper published May 2 in the journal Environmental Health used similar data and found that fertility—the number of live births per 1,000 women—increased around coal and oil power plants after closure.
“We were excited to do a good news story in environmental health,” Casey said. “Most people look at air pollution and adverse health outcomes, but this is the flip side: We said, let’s look at what happens when we have this external shock that removes air pollution from a community and see if we can see any improvements in health.”