It is the leading cause of death among newborns born in the U.S. It is premature birth and it is a big problem and one that is continuing to rise. Over the last 25 years, the number of premature births in this country has increased by 36 percent, such that now, one out of every eight infants born in the here is born prematurely.

One city may have found a way to reduce these numbers, and the solution comes from an unlikely source - highway control policies.

A recent study from researchers at Columbia University looked at the E-Z Pass toll system that runs through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The team looked at birth records for mothers who lived within two kilometers of a toll plaza during their pregnancy. Of the 30,000 births documented, researchers estimated that 255 preterm births and 275 low-birth-weight births were avoided once the E-Z Pass system was begun.

What could account for the reduction?

The study noted that air pollution in and around the toll plazas reduced dramatically after the E-Z Pass system was installed, in part because cars don't have to stop and start to pay tolls but rather can keep on driving through the station. In one location within the study area, nitrogen oxide fell by 11 percent after the implementation of E-Z Pass.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, air pollution is not listed as a potential cause for premature birth. However, previous studies have alluded to a link between the two. And researchers noted in this study that air pollution - along with other problems associated with vehicular traffic, such as noise pollution - may be worth a closer look when it comes to prenatal health and premature birth.

It may be too soon to jump to the conclusion that E-Z Pass or similar toll booth passes can reduce premature births. But it is certainly worth a closer look when such big savings in dollars - and human lives - are on the line.

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