Preterm Births Caused by Air Pollution Cost Americans $4.3 Billion Every Year

03_29_16_Air pollution preterm births cost
Where a person lives could have more impact on their longterm health than genetics, the authors write. Mike Blake/Reuters

Air pollution is a menace and not just to your lungs. In fact, the air pollution you breathe doesn't stop its journey there: Very small molecules of air pollution slip through your lungs and into your bloodstream, even penetrating the walls of your blood cells and traveling everywhere your blood does.

For a pregnant woman, that means any air pollution she breathes is traveling, through her blood, straight to her developing fetus. Air pollution exposure in the womb has long been associated with an array of adverse birth outcomes like preterm birth and low birth weight. Air pollution can also damage immune development in utero, making it harder for the babies to fight infection once they are born.

While the impact on the baby's health from air pollution is becoming clearer with each new study, a group of scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center set out to determine the financial burden of their conditions to America's economic system. They found that, taken together, the roughly 16,000 babies born too early every year in the U.S. due to air pollution exposure in utero translate to $4.33 billion in costs to the U.S. economy.

That breaks down to $760 million spent on longer hospital stays and long-term medication use due to early birth, plus another $3.57 billion in lost economic productivity over the infants' lifetimes due to the long list of physical and mental disabilities that can arise when a baby is born too soon. Cerebral palsy and neurodevelopmental delay, as well as higher rates of sepsis, respiratory distress syndrome, diabetes and hypertension are all associated with preterm birth.

"Air pollution comes with a tremendous cost, not only in terms of human life, but also in terms of the associated economic burden to society," Leonardo Trasande, a doctor and professor at NYU Langone and the lead author of the paper published Tuesday in Environmental Health Perspectives said in a statement. "It is also important to note that this burden is preventable and can be reduced by limiting emissions from automobiles and coal-fired power plants." He and his team estimated that slightly more than 3 percent of premature births can be directly linked to air pollution.