“Doing nothing about air pollution, which so clearly has a greater impact on Black Americans, is racism in action.” Women exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have premature, underweight or stillborn babies, a look at 32 million U.S. births found. The project looked at 57 studies published since 2007 that found a relationship between heat or air pollution and birth outcomes in the United States.
By Christopher Flavelle, NYTimes, June 18, 2020
WASHINGTON — Pregnant women exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have children who are premature, underweight or stillborn, and African-American mothers and babies are harmed at a much higher rate than the population at large, according to sweeping new research examining more than 32 million births in the United States.
The research adds to a growing body of evidence that minorities bear a disproportionate share of the danger from pollution and global warming. Not only are minority communities in the United States far more likely to be hotter than the surrounding areas, a phenomenon known as the “heat island” effect, but they are also more likely to be located near polluting industries.
“We already know that these pregnancy outcomes are worse for black women,” said Rupa Basu, one of the paper’s authors and the chief of the air and climate epidemiological section for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California. “It’s even more exacerbated by these exposures.”
The research, published Thursday in JAMA Network Open, part of the Journal of the American Medical Association, presents some of the most sweeping evidence so far linking aspects of climate change with harm to newborn children. The project looked at 57 studies published since 2007 that found a relationship between heat or air pollution and birth outcomes in the United States.
The cumulative findings from the studies offer reason to be concerned that the toll on babies’ health will grow as climate change worsens.
Higher temperatures, which are an increasing issue as climate change causes more frequent and intense heat waves, were associated with more premature births. Four studies found that high temperatures were tied to an increased risk of premature birth ranging from 8.6 percent to 21 percent. Low birth weights were also more common as temperatures rose.
The authors looked at two studies that examined the link between higher temperatures and stillbirths. One found that every temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius in the week before delivery corresponded with a 6 percent greater likelihood of stillbirth between May and September. Both studies found racial disparities in the number of stillbirths.
“Black moms matter,” said Bruce Bekkar, a retired gynecologist and obstetrician one of the co-authors of Thursday’s report, as well as a board member with the Climate Action Campaign, an advocacy group in San Diego. “It’s time to really be paying attention to the groups that are especially vulnerable.”
The paper also looked for research examining the effects of pregnancy from greater exposure to two types of air pollution: ozone, also known as smog, and tiny particles called PM 2.5. Both types of pollution are becoming more common as climate change continues, the authors said.
The vast majority of the studies reviewed in the paper concluded that ozone and PM 2.5 are also associated with preterm births, low birth weights and stillbirths. One study found that high exposure to air pollution during the final trimester of pregnancy was linked to a 42 percent increase in the risk of stillbirth.
Another study, looking at almost half a million births in Florida in 2004 and 2005, found that for every 5 kilometers, or roughly 3 miles, closer a mother lives to a plant that uses garbage to produce energy, the risk of low birth weight increases by 3 percent. Living closer to power plants was also tied to a higher risk of preterm birth.
Mothers with asthma were at particularly high risk. One study found that severe preterm birth, defined as a birth that occurs fewer than 28 weeks into pregnancy, increased by 52 percent for asthmatic mothers exposed to high levels of air pollution.
Most of the studies that examined the link between air pollution and preterm birth or low birth weight found that the risks were greater for black mothers.
Catherine Garcia Flowers, a field organizer in Houston for Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group, said the paper was evidence that the federal government needed to tighten regulations against air pollution. “This is a moment of reckoning for racial injustice and health disparities,” Ms. Flowers said by email. “Doing nothing about air pollution, which so clearly has a greater impact on Black Americans, is racism in action.”
Premature birth and low birth weight can have consequences that last a lifetime, affecting such things as brain development and vulnerability to disease, according to Nathaniel DeNicola, another of the paper’s authors and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
“This really does set the stage for an entire generation,” Dr. DeNicola said.
That increased risk adds to the disproportionate burden faced by black women when it comes to pregnancy. Black mothers are 2.4 times more likely to have children with low birth weight than white women, a 2018 paper found. An analysis published last year found that the risk of stillbirth was as much as twice as great for black mothers as for whites across a number of wealthy countries.
The particular vulnerability of black mothers to heat and air pollution was likely the result of several systemic problems, the authors said.
African Americans are more likely to live close to power plants and other sources of air pollution, Dr. Basu said. They may also be less likely to have air conditioning in their homes or less able to afford the higher electrical bills, she said, or to live in neighborhoods with green spaces that can help keep temperatures down.
Compounding the added risks from warming and pollution, Dr. Basu said, research has shown that minority communities tend to have less access to medical help and that minority patients tend not to receive equal levels of treatment. “There might not be as much care given to a woman of color versus a white woman,” Dr. Basu said.
Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the problems could not be tackled in isolation. “We need to look at policies that provide equitable opportunities for communities of color,” Dr. Hollis said. “If you address structural racism, I think you’re going to start getting at some of these issues.”
Summer in the City Is Hot, but
Some Neighborhoods Suffer More
As the United States suffers through a summer of record-breaking heat, new research shows that temperatures on a scorching summer day can vary as much as 20 degrees across different parts of the same city, with poor or minority neighborhoods often bearing the brunt of that heat.
“The heat island effect is often characterized as the city being hotter than surrounding rural areas,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, who led heat mapping projects across the country with help from community volunteers. “We’re saying it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Buildings and paved surfaces – like major roadways, uncovered parking lots and industrial zones – amplified heat, while large parks and other green spaces cooled down the surrounding areas. In cities like Baltimore and Washington, some of the hottest temperatures were recorded in dense residential neighborhoods with little tree cover and plenty of asphalt to absorb and radiate solar energy.
As climate change makes summers hotter, the health risks associated with these hyperlocal heat islands will grow.
“This is really about human health and well-being,” Dr. Shandas said. “How do we live and thrive in these places?”
Cooler: Neighborhoods next to parks and those with plenty of tree cover saw significantly cooler temperatures on a hot summer afternoon: as low as 87°F.
Hotter: On the same day, residential neighborhoods east of downtown saw hotspots reach over 101°F.
AFTERNOON RANGE: 87°F TO 103°F
To map Baltimore’s heatscape, Dr. Shandas’s team and local volunteers recorded street-level temperatures during one of the hottest days of the year last summer. They got a maximum reading of nearly 103 degrees in the city’s downtown, an area of large brick buildings, parking lots and few trees. The lowest temperature, 87 degrees, was recorded in a forested part of the Ten Hills neighborhood.
A conspicuous belt of high heat stretched east of downtown, across residential neighborhoods made up of dense row houses, typically with no yards and little tree cover. Average temperatures in this area, which is majority African American and largely lower-income, hovered between 98 and 99 degrees, with hot spots reaching as high as 102 degrees.
At the same time, average temperatures in the more affluent, tree-lined residential areas in the city’s north, as well as those surrounding Leakin Park to the west, stayed in the low 90s.
High heat: Rowhouses with sparse tree cover in McElderry Park, East Baltimore.
Cooler temperatures: Franklintown, a historic neighborhood near Leakin Park.
High heat: Downtown Baltimore.
Cooler temperatures: The residential Roland Park neighborhood in North Baltimore.All photos by Rosem Morton for The New York Times
Baltimore is trying to ease the heat burden by planting more trees. The city plans to increase its tree canopy to cover 40 percent of the city, up from 28 percent in 2015, according to Lisa McNeilly, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.
The city is also trying to turn some of its vacant lots into permanent green spaces. When abandoned or derelict homes are demolished, the land beneath them is sometimes used for parking. But by turning those lots into small parks, Ms. McNeilly said, Baltimore can increase the amount of vegetation and make neighborhoods cooler.
The easiest answer for cities that want to fight heat islands is straightforward, according to Dr. Shandas: More green and less pavement.
“If there’s anything a city can do, it’s to rethink how much roadway it’s going to put down,” he said. “What are the places you could potentially de-pave?”
Axios | Ben Geman Americans are growing increasingly concerned about health risks linked to global warming, according to a newly released survey from Ipsos alongside Yale and George Mason researchers. […] The university researchers, who study public opinion on climate, compared results of surveys taken in 2014 and again in April of this year. The survey asked whether various problems and risks will become more common in their communities over the next 10 years if nothing is done to address global warming.
Americans are growing increasingly concerned about health risks linked to global warming, according to a newly released survey from Ipsos alongside Yale and George Mason researchers.
Why it matters: The findings are further evidence of a political opening for Joe Biden on the topic.
What they did: The university researchers, who study public opinion on climate, compared results of surveys taken in 2014 and again in April of this year.
- The survey asked whether various problems and risks will become more common in their communities over the next 10 years if nothing is done to address global warming. Most of the answers are above.
Of note: The surveys of over 1,000 Americans have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3%.
The New York Times | Henry Fountain and John Schwartz Following a May that tied for the hottest on record, the United States is heading into a potentially blistering summer, with hotter than normal temperatures expected across almost the entire country into September, government researchers said on Thursday. Dan Collins, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, said that for July, August and September across almost the entire United States “the average temperatures are likely to be above normal,” especially in the West and Northeast. The trends over the last few decades are clear. The most recent figures are in line with a general warming trend: Each decade since the 1960s has been warmer than the one before, and the five hottest years occurred in the second half of the last decade. High temperatures were likeliest in the Mid-Atlantic states, Northeast and New England, and across much of the West, Rocky Mountains and Southwest. Only a small part of the Midwest, centered around Missouri, has an equal chance of lower-than-normal temperatures, according to an analysis by the Climate Prediction Center. […] It is now virtually certain that globally, 2020 will be one of the five hottest years on record, she said. But it’s less likely that 2020 will eclipse 2016 as the hottest ever. NOAA now estimates there is about a 50 percent chance that 2020 will be a record breaker, down from about 75 percent a month ago. Gavin A. Schmidt, the director the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, said that the new information is in line with what is known about climate change: “There is a long-term trend in temperatures driven by human activity that is going to lead to more and more records being broken,” he said. “Not every month, not every year — but this will keep happening as long as we continue to emit carbon dioxide.”