PROTECT Study exposes how severe hurricanes can lead to adverse birth outcomes

In a recent study published in Population and Environment, PROTECT researchers found that women in Northern Puerto Rico who were pregnant during Hurricane Maria were exposed to higher levels of phthalates, chemicals shown to be related to preterm birth, after Maria compared to before. Women who experience a severe hurricane while pregnant are at higher risk of delivering their baby early, increasing the likelihood of additional health problems for both mother and baby.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals often added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable, or are used as dissolving agents in personal care products such as shampoos or lotions. The specific phthalates that were higher post-hurricane are typically used in plastics and food packaging materials.

PROTECT researchers used information from questionnaires and urine samples that are routinely collected through the study to compare results before and after Hurricane Maria. They also administered an additional questionnaire to PROTECT participants who were pregnant during or became pregnant within the few months after Hurricane Maria to collect information about what they experienced during Maria and the recovery period in Puerto Rico.

The women in our study reported wide-spread structural damage to their homes, limited access to fresh food and water, and long-term absence of electricity and cell phone service. In ongoing research, researchers are assessing how these and other factors may have affected the health of Puerto Rican women who were pregnant during Hurricane Maria. However, it is not known what specifically about experiencing a hurricane is responsible for this increase in preterm birth.

“These findings can help inform the general public and emergency preparedness professionals in regards to potential exposures and needs related to emergency food and water supplies, particularly in vulnerable populations,” explains lead author Deb Watkins. “Ultimately, this work may help identify hurricane-related factors that contribute to the high rate of preterm birth in Puerto Rico.”