Smog is linked to stillbirths, infant deaths and low birth weight

By Gary Polakovic
Times Environmental Writer

December 16 2001

A growing body of research from around the world indicates that smog is exacting a much greater toll than previously known on infants and unborn babies. Scientists have long known that the extreme levels of air pollution found in the developing world can harm babies, and that lesser pollution in U.S. cities can sicken or kill the elderly and infirm. The new research shows that the harmful effects of dirty air can extend even into the womb.

More than a dozen studies in the United States, Brazil, Europe, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan have linked smog to low birth weight, premature births, stillbirths and infant deaths. In this country, the research has documented ill effects on infants even in cities with modern pollution controls, including Los Angeles. The findings have helped prompt California officials to seek more stringent smog controls.

"Smog can harm the health of babies," said Beate Ritz, an epidemiologist at UCLA's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. "This should make us pause. Air pollution doesn't just impact asthmatics and old people at the end of life, but it can affect people at the beginning of their life, and that can disadvantage people throughout their life."

A UCLA study conducted by Ritz and scheduled for release Dec. 28, for the first time links air pollution and birth defects in Southern California. Other experts say that although worldwide research shows a strong correlation between air quality and infant illnesses, it does not establish a conclusive cause-and-effect connection. Most of the studies have been analyzed by disinterested scientists--a process called peer review--and have been published in leading journals or will be soon.

The studies differ on which pollutants are of most concern. Some implicate gases, others blame particles, and some point to both. "The research is suggestive, but preliminary. It's something to be concerned about, but nothing to panic about," said Tracey Woodruff, a senior scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an author of one of the research papers. "It's something we need to pay attention to."

Some Skeptical, Others Troubled Frederick W. Lipfert, a New York environmental consultant hired by auto makers, the steel industry, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute to critique several of the reports, downplayed the findings. "These studies raise more suspicions than smoking guns," he said. Nonetheless, the research, especially the studies focusing on U.S. cities where pollution levels have been declining, is regarded by health experts as troubling.

"We know there are serious health effects from low levels of air pollution," said Aaron Cohen, an epidemiologist and principal scientist for the Health Effects Institute in Boston, a joint enterprise of the EPA and several pollution-generating industries, including oil companies and utilities. "When something affects babies and children, everybody takes it seriously. I think it's a high priority that we follow up on these studies," Cohen said.