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Environ Health. 2008 Nov 25;7:60. doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-7-60.

The effects of socioeconomic status and indices of physical environment on reduced birth weight and preterm births in Eastern Massachusetts.

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Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University, Landmark Suite 415 West, Boston, MA 02115, USA.



Air pollution and social characteristics have been shown to affect indicators of health. While use of spatial methods to estimate exposure to air pollution has increased the power to detect effects, questions have been raised about potential for confounding by social factors.


A study of singleton births in Eastern Massachusetts was conducted between 1996 and 2002 to examine the association between indicators of traffic, land use, individual and area-based socioeconomic measures (SEM), and birth outcomes (birth weight, small for gestational age and preterm births), in a two-level hierarchical model.


We found effects of both individual (education, race, prenatal care index) and area-based (median household income) SEM with all birth outcomes. The associations for traffic and land use variables were mainly seen with birth weight, with an exception for an effect of cumulative traffic density on small for gestational age. Race/ethnicity of mother was an important predictor of birth outcomes and a strong confounder for both area-based SEM and indices of physical environment. The effects of traffic and land use differed by level of education and median household income.


Overall, the findings of the study suggested greater likelihood of reduced birth weight and preterm births among the more socially disadvantaged, and a greater risk of reduced birth weight associated with traffic exposures. Results revealed the importance of controlling simultaneously for SEM and environmental exposures as the way to better understand determinants of health.

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