Pregnant women exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have premature, underweight or stillborn babies — and Black mothers are hit the hardest.

By Kylie Gilbert
Jun 18, 2020 @ 4:23 pm
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As if an invisible and deadly virus wasn't enough for pregnant women to stress about, now there's another looming enemy: Climate change.

A new study, published Thursday in JAMA Network Open, looked at data from more than 32 million births in the U.S. from 2007 to 2019 and concluded that pregnant women exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have premature, underweight, or stillborn babies — and these risks are greatest for Black mothers.

The fact that global warming is dangerous for pregnant women isn't new — researchers have been examining the link between rising temperatures and premature births and stillbirths for the past decade. However, the New York Times reports that this study is "the most sweeping evidence so far linking aspects of climate change with harm to newborn children."

Health experts believe there are a few possible reasons for the connection between heat and premature birth. Heat may lead to cardiovascular stress in the mother that causes the body to go into labor early; high temperatures may also trigger an increase in levels of the hormone oxytocin, which plays a role in labor. Air pollution, on the other hand, increases toxic chemicals in the blood and causes stress to the immune system, which can weaken the placenta surrounding the fetus and thus lead to preterm birth.

The fact that this affects Black women the most only exacerbates the alarming and ongoing Black maternal and infant health crisis in the U.S. According to a 2019 report from CDC researchers, Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts and Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants.

But solving these issues must go beyond environmental or health care policy, Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists told the New York Times. For example, Black Americans are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to have access to healthy foods, less likely to have access to green space to shield them from heat waves, and more likely to live close to sources of pollution, she points out.

As climate change worsens, so too will the health risks for moms and infants — but until we can address the structural racism in our country, it will be Black women who continue to pay the highest price.