A new study revealed that lower birth weights in the Tennessee Valley have been linked to the switch from nuclear to coal-fired power plants in the area. The study looked at the impact of the closures of multiple nuclear power plants and the damaging effects of relying on coal.
The Details On the Low Birth Weights
The study investigating the low birth weights, conducted by Edson Severnini of Carnegie Mellon University, looked at many factors affecting the child including county born, mother’s age, mother’s education level and health. Across all factors, it was revealed that birth weight in counties near coal-fired plants declined by 5.4% in the year and a half following the nuclear plant shutdowns. This impact on low birth weights was felt the strongest in areas that saw the most coal-fired power plant activity.
Researchers surmise that birth weights are being affected by the coal-fired power plants due to air pollution in the area. Air pollution is a significant factor that affects the health of both pregnant women and their unborn babies. The air pollution from the coal-fired power plants was also responsible for premature births in addition to the low birth weights. Low birth weights have been connected to lower incomes, shorter heights, and lower IQ scores.
A similar study conducted by Jonathan Griggs, professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London, looked at the effects of air pollution and traffic on birth weights. The study in the United States found similar results with Griggs’ study in the UK. Griggs also warns that this current study could become more important as Trump and his administration look to expand the coal industry. Griggs explained that while further research is needed on the complete impact of air pollution on unborn children, there is a serious concern.
“If you have reduced organ development, both brain and other organs, our concern is that it has a disproportionate effect over the whole lifespan,” he said. “What we want as clinicians, we want to maximise fetal development and anything that suppresses fetal development in any way is of concern.”
Why Were the Nuclear Power Plants Closed?
After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 in Pennsylvania, the most serious nuclear leak in US history, many nuclear power plants around the country were shut down. After the partial meltdown in Three Mile Island, policymakers believed it would be in the best interest of public health to scrutinize and close other nuclear power plants. However, those same policymakers gave little thought to the negative impacts of going from nuclear to coal-fired power.
What’s Wrong with Coal-Fired Power Plants?
Severnini and colleagues looked at two two nuclear power plants in the Tennessee Valley area that were closed after the Three Mile Island accident: Browns Ferry and Sequoyah. Both were shut down in 1985 and remained closed for a few years. The loss of nuclear power in the area was almost entirely replaced by coal-fired power plants.
With coal-fired power plants, particle pollution in the air drastically increases. Around one coal-fired power plant, the Paradise plant, the concentration of particulates increased by 27% in the year and a half after the nuclear power plant shutdown. The results from this study were in line with studies done in Japan and Germany following their shift from nuclear to coal power.
What’s the Alternative?
So, if nuclear is dangerous but so is coal, what’s the best way to move forward? What source of energy protects public health including the health of unborn babies? Marie Pederson from the Center of Epidemiology and Screening at the University of Copenhagen explains the right alternative. “I think we have enough evidence to say we should not shift to coal-burning power plants, and really it could be good to push for more clean energy sources, not only for birth weight but for many other outcomes also.” Marie continued to point out that air pollution also contributes to other health problems in pregnant women and respiratory diseases. Clearly coal power, a favorite of the Trump administration, is not the way forward.