Puerto Rico not only has the highest pre-term birth rate in the United States, but it also has one of the highest rates in the world. According to Mike Melia, a writer for the Associated Press, and who provided the source for this article, poverty could be a factor.
Melia stated that 48 percent of the island’s births consist of Cesarean section, compared with 32 percent on the U.S. mainland.
Over the last 20 years, the pre-term birth rate has increased by 50 percent.
A team of university researchers received $9.9 million from the National Institutes of Health to study whether contaminants in the groundwater are a contributing factor. Puerto Rico has a “legacy of industrial contamination” and many overflowing landfills on its northern coast.
Premature birth is the number one cause of infant mortality, and the babies who survive can have mental retardation or other handicaps that may last a lifetime.
Doctors who treat premature babies suspect that many things may be culpable, including social issues. Edwin Scot Tapia, a neonatologist from Arecibo, said there is a growing number of teenagers, who consume drugs and alcohol during their pregnancy, giving birth to premature babies.
Dr. Marta Valcarcel, who runs the largest neonatal intensive care unit at a San Juan hospital, and which is also the largest one on the island, said the following about the babies, “They are born premature because there are many high-risk mothers. The government needs to do a better job of maternal care.”
The pre-term birth rate in the United States has also risen in the last twenty years and is at 12.3 percent. The experts believe this is due to such things as obesity, smoking, and fertility treatments.
The four-year study by researchers from Northeastern and Michigan universities and two campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, are concentrating on chemicals released from plastics and so called Superfund cleanup sites that have been linked to premature labor.
Akkram Alshawabkeh, the lead investigator from Northeastern said, “The potential for exposure to the chemicals from these sites and its effects on public health are not well understood.”