Economists: Hurricanes Spell Trouble for Pregnancies

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So, some bad news for expecting parents on the eastern seaboard today. Apparently Hurricanes can spell trouble for fetuses -- or thus suggests a working paper a pair of Ivy League economists released earlier this year.

In the latest of a long line of studies attempting to estimate the effects of a mother's stress levels on pregnancies, Janet Currie of Princeton and Maya Rossin Slater of Columbia dove into Texas birth records from 1996 to 2008 to find whether women who lived near the path of a tropical storm or hurricane during their pregnancy were more likely to deliver children with health complications. Americans are rarely injured or left ill after hurricanes, so the researchers argue that  stress was probably the most significant side-effect of living through a storm. The data allowed them to track mothers over time and multiple pregnancies, as well as keep tabs on factors such as whether they smoked while carrying their child. 

In the end, Currie and Rossin found that stress did cause complications at birth, although they weren't as severe as those found in previous studies: 

In contrast to most previous studies, we find little evidence of a relationship between exposure to a stressful event during pregnancy and gestation or birth weight. We do, however, find that mothers living within 30 kilometers of the hurricane path during their third trimester are 60% more likely to have a newborn with abnormal conditions (including meconium aspiration syndrome, and being on a ventilator more than 30 minutes), and 30% more likely to have any complications during labor and/or delivery.

Newborns were more likely to suffer complications if their mothers lived through a hurricane in their first or third trimester. Experiencing one during their second trimester did not have an apparent impact. The researchers concluded that stress was the likely cause, because the health troubles couldn't be traced back to post-storm changes in behavior by the mother. 

So why are a pair of economists looking at this issue to begin with? A child's health at birth can predict much about their later life, including how they do in school and what they earn. "Hence, economists are increasingly concerned with understanding the impacts of conditions during pregnancy on birth outcomes," Currie and Rosin write. One more reason for everyone to try and stay calm. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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