The Government’s SIDS Fibs

By Michael Fumento

August 5, 1997
Copyright 1997 by Michael Fumento

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"If Congress wants to put up dead babies versus polluters’ profits, they should just go ahead," taunted the executive director of the far-left Physicians for Social Responsibility in response to a recent EPA study linking air pollution to Sudden Infant Deaths Syndrome (SIDS).

Yet the apolitical Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Alliance announced, "A causal relationship between particulate air pollution and SIDS has not been demonstrated by the current study."

Why the conflicting statements?

Simply put, the EPA is fighting to implement new air pollution regulations that could cost more than $100 billion a year and inflict tremendous lifestyle changes on the public. The proposals have come under fire from both Congress and many highly respected scientists who question whether they will save any lives.

Yet, even the EPA has admitted that virtually all if not all of the deaths prevented would be in sick, elderly persons already close to death. That’s not a great selling point.

Hence the remarkably good "fortune" of this study appearing at just this time, leading to such headlines as, "Study: Pollution Kills Many Infants," (Salt Lake Tribune), "Air Pollution Puts Babies Susceptible to SIDS at Risk," (Gannett News Service), and "SIDS, Air Pollution Linked" (United Press International).

The report found that "infants born in cities with high levels of soot in the air were as much as 26 percent more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and 40 percent more likely to die of respiratory diseases."

But there’s a lot more to the story.

First, galleys of the article were leaked by its lead author, Tracey Woodruff, to radical environmental groups like Clean Air Trust, and to select sympathetic reporters. Those reporters then eagerly relayed the words of a Trust official: "The science suggests strongly that air pollution is killing infants."

It was more than a month before critics and independent-minded reporters could actually read it in the actual government medical journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. The need for the spin-doctoring becomes apparent when you actually look at the study. For one, it found that overall infant mortality in the most polluted areas was merely 10 percent higher than in the least polluted areas. Epidemiology is a crude tool, and most epidemiologists would tell you that a 10 percent increase probably means nothing.

There were other major apparent problems. Curiously, for example, infants in the low birthweight category who would presumably be more likely to be harmed by pollutants showed no statistically significant increase in risk.

Despite its flaws, EPA Administrator Carol Browner seized on the study to push for the new air pollution standards. But the study didn’t even measure what the EPA is now proposing to regulate — fine particles. It measured larger ones, those the EPA already regulates. Thus, it was largely irrelevant to the EPA’s proposals.

Indeed, the main cause of SIDS doesn’t appear to be outdoor pollution of any type. Children of the age in the study — all less than a year old — spend virtually their entire time indoors. Indeed, the average American adult spends 93 percent of his time indoors.

The greater problem may actually be indoor air pollution.

Precisely, says Fred Rueter, vice-president of Consad Research Corporation, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit research group. "That study is probably the strongest evidence yet that something other than particulates is the cause of mortality [death] because this is a population that is not going to get much exposure to outdoor air," Rueter says. "I would search for the culprits in indoor air."

Rocking parents with alarming false SIDS information distracts them from preventative actions that work.

In many homes, indoor pollution caused by everything from insects to tobacco smoke to cooking oils to molds is higher than pollution outside. Further, the same weather patterns (basically stagnant air) that cause outdoor pollutants to build up also cause indoor ones to increase because wind isn’t carrying the indoor pollutants out.

What may be even worse than needlessly worrying parents about the causes of SIDS deaths is that it takes away attention from real causes or suspected causes.

Thus, while parents everywhere are now panicked that outdoor air pollution is associated with a 26 percent increase in SIDS deaths, how many know that a study in the British Medical Journal found numerous controllable factors that absolutely swamp that 26 percent.

For example, laying a baby down on its front increases its chance of dying by almost 900 percent. Loosely tucking the baby in is almost a four times higher risk factor than outdoor air pollution. Supporting the indoor air pollution theory is the finding that if the infant is exposed to tobacco smoke for eight or more hours a day it has a stunning 700 percent higher chance of SIDS!

ASSOCIATIONS BETWEEN VARIOUS
RISK FACTORS AND SIDS DEATHS

RISK FACTOR INCREASED RISK
High level of outdoor pollution 26%
Baby place on side 101%
Baby usually found with covers over head 172%
Comforter used during last sleep 182%
Bedding loosely tucked in 192%
Mother used illegal drugs during pregnancy 334%
Mother smoked before pregnancy 407%
Mother smoked after pregnancy 419%
Baby exposed to 6-8 hours tobacco smoke daily 578%
Baby exposed to 8 or more hours tobacco smoked daily 729%
Baby placed on stomach 858%
Baby last found with covers over head 1793%

Source: British Medical Journal, July 27, 1996

And here’s the EPA spreading fear over something associated with a 26 percent higher risk.

Thus, there are two tragedies in the way the SIDS-air pollution study was exploited. The first is using it to foist upon us terrifically onerous regulations that will save no children’s lives. The second is that parents are being misinformed about what they can do to protect their kids from SIDS.

Any way you look at it, it’s pretty sick to play politics with dead babies.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on government and pollution.