Closing coal plants is reducing premature births — immediately

Closing coal plants is reducing premature births — immediately
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As moms, we'll never forget those last few weeks of pregnancy, a nervous and exciting time when the rest of the world seemed to fall away, as we did everything we could to provide a safe and peaceful entry into the world for our babies. That time is cut short for moms who give birth prematurely, and a stunning new study out this week found that pollution from coal and oil power plants is linked to higher rates of premature birth.

As clean energy advocates, we both know that this country can do better. The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that after eight coal- and oil-fired power plants in California closed, the rate of premature birth for moms living nearby dropped dramatically. The greatest improvements were for Asian American and African American moms — women who are suffering from a well-document maternal health crisis. But it doesn't have to be this way. Renewable energy is here today, powering America and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

Let’s start with what we learned with real clarity from this study. When plants stop burning fossil fuels like dirty coal and oil, moms and their babies wind up healthier.


Decades of research has already shown how deadly air and water pollution from coal is. But this study was especially powerful. Researchers studied more than 57,000 births from mothers who lived in the shadow of fossil fuel plants that burned coal and oil.

After the plants shut down, the rate of premature births dropped from 7 percent to 5.1 percent — in just one year. Even within the study’s small sample, that’s more than 1,000 moms who don’t have to face a lifetime of potential health consequences for their children.

Imagine that effect carried across America, and the world. With 268 coal plants — over half the nation’s coal fleet — now slated for retirement thanks to a decade of advocacy, hundreds of communities stand to share in these benefits, with many more to come as we continue our work.

Every parent wants to give their children the best chance at a happy, healthy life. Premature birth can carry with it a host of lifelong health complications: Being born before term can cause delays in physical development and learning. Doctors say that pre-term birth increases a child’s chance of lung diseases like asthma and neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, to name just a few risks.

Perhaps the most important part of the new study, though, is how quickly we can reverse these risks.

The benefits moms and kids saw from cleaner air and water happened in the very first year after the fossil fuel plants shut down. This tells us that moving beyond coal and other dirty fuels almost immediately reduces the risk that moms and their children face.

With clean energy here, now, powering our communities and businesses, these facts paint a clear picture. We can no longer afford to delay our transition to 100 percent clean energy.

More than ever, wind and solar are already powering our homes and our communities — and they’re doing so without damaging our children’s growing lungs and brains. Today’s clean energy economy is already vibrant and prosperous, employing more people than the entire fossil fuel industry combined. No one can deny that wind and solar are safer, cleaner — and often cheaper — than coal, oil and fracked gas. These clean technologies also provide a renewable power source and the prospect of new, sustainable jobs.

Grassroots pressure from across America is driving an inevitable change away from dirty coal. This is a transition that needs to happen as soon as possible. Every day we delay means dirtier air and more risks for our kids.  

Think of it this way. If you knew for certain that you could make a choice today that would make your children healthier, their air and water cleaner, and their economic future brighter — and that you could see those benefits immediately, and throughout their lives — could anything stop you from making that choice?

The answer for most of us is always going to be “no.” Nothing can stop parents from wanting to build a better world for their children. That’s why we need to heed this study’s warnings now, and continue our progress toward powering the nation with clean, renewable energy.

Vien Truong is CEO of the Dream Corps.

Mary Anne Hitt is senior director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.