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Dr. Beate Ritz, FSPH professor of epidemiology with a joint appointment in environmental health sciences, commented Apr. 4 in a ScienceNews article about the health dangers of using coal-fired power plants as a replacement for cleaner energy sources.
After two nuclear reactors in Tennessee were temporarily shut down in the 1980s, coal-fired power plants picked up various amounts of the slack. Babies born near the Paradise Fossil Plant (red diamond), which saw the biggest increase in production, tended to be born smaller after the shift.
Not surprisingly, air pollution near the Paradise plant rose, Severnini found. The levels of an air pollution indicator called total suspended particulate fell below the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit at the time (but wouldn’t have passed today’s tougher standards, Severnini says). Still, babies born near the plant in the 18 months after the nuclear shutdowns in 1985 were about 5 percent smaller than babies born in the 18 months before. No difference in birth weight showed up in babies born near other power plants that didn’t change their output (including my town’s).
That 5 percent difference was “really, really surprising,” says Severnini, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Studies have linked low birth weight to trouble later in life, including a lower IQ, lower earnings and health problems, particularly heart disease.
UCLA environmental epidemiologist Beate Ritz puts that 5 percent drop in context. “These coal-fired power plants coming online can be compared with a pregnant woman smoking one pack of cigarettes a day,” she says. “That’s pretty bad.”
Ritz, who studies the hazards of air pollution in Los Angeles, points out that it’s not just the lowest birth weight babies affected. The whole curve of birth weights shifted, so that in all likelihood, most babies born there were impacted in some way. “There’s only a small percent in the upper end of the curve that is unaffected,” she says. “Everybody else has probably some kind of subtle effect that you can’t measure on their brain development, on their lung development, on their immune system.”