Poor and minority parents are disproportionately exposed to pollution, and that exposure may have life-long consequences for their babies, writes Janet Currie, a Princeton expert on health disparities, in a new article for The American Economic Review. Currie notes that even in utero exposure can be harmful and result in low-birth weight, a condition that is almost as good a predictor of low future earnings as children’s test scores. Curries cites as an example a study of mothers who lived near a carbon-monoxide-emitting steel mill in Utah whose incidence of low-birth weight decreased when the mill was temporarily closed and rose when it reopened. “The estimates suggest that moving from an area with high levels of CO to one with low levels of CO would have an effect larger than getting a woman who was smoking ten cigarettes a day during pregnancy to quit!” Currie writes.
The authors note that education, as well as environmental factors, also play a part. For example, low birth weight particularly affects African American high school dropouts, whose incidence rate is more than three times higher than among white college educated mothers. And estimates suggest that an additional year of college education reduces the incidence of low birth weight by 10 percent.