Disparities in exposure to air pollution during pregnancy

Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Jun;111(7):942-6. doi: 10.1289/ehp.5317.


Previous research shows poorer birth outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities and for persons with low socioeconomic status (SES). We evaluated whether mothers in groups at higher risk for poor birth outcomes live in areas of higher air pollution and whether higher exposure to air pollution contributes to poor birth outcomes. An index representing long-term exposure to criteria air pollutants was matched with birth certificate data at the county level for the United States in 1998-1999. We used linear regression to estimate associations between the air pollution index and maternal race and educational attainment, a marker for SES of the mother, controlling for age, parity, marital status, and region of the country. Then we used logistic regression models both to estimate likelihood of living in counties with the highest levels of air pollution for different racial groups and by educational attainment, adjusting for other maternal risk factors, and to estimate the effect of living in counties with higher levels of air pollution on preterm delivery and births small for gestational age (SGA). Hispanic, African-American, and Asian/Pacific Islander mothers experienced higher mean levels of air pollution and were more than twice as likely to live in the most polluted counties compared with white mothers after controlling for maternal risk factors, region, and educational status [Hispanic mothers: adjusted odds ratio (AOR) = 4.66; 95% confidence interval (95% CI), 1.92-11.32; African-American mothers: AOR = 2.58; 95% CI, 1.00-6.62; Asian/Pacific Islander mothers: AOR = 2.82; 95% CI, 1.07-7.39]. Educational attainment was not associated with living in counties with highest levels of the air pollution index (AOR = 0.95; 95% CI, 0.40-2.26) after adjusting for maternal risk factors, region of the country, and race/ethnicity. There was a small increase in the odds of preterm delivery (AOR = 1.05; 95% CI, 0.99-1.12) but not SGA (AOR = 0.96; 95% CI, 0.86-1.07) in a county with high air pollution. Additional risk of residing in areas with poor air quality may exacerbate health problems of infants and children already at increased risk for poor health.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Air Pollutants / poisoning
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis*
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature
  • Infant, Small for Gestational Age
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / chemically induced
  • Pregnancy Complications / economics
  • Pregnancy Complications / epidemiology*
  • Pregnancy Complications / ethnology
  • Social Class
  • Social Justice*
  • United States


  • Air Pollutants