High rates of infant deaths persist in U.S.

U.S. infant death rates remained high in 2021, with wide disparities among racial and ethnic groups, new federal research shows.

About 19,930 babies under age 1 died in 2021, a 2% increase from 2020, according to the annual National Vital Statistics Report. The 2021 U.S. infant mortality rate was 5.44 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, which was similar to the 2020 rate of 5.42.

Overall, infants of Black women had the highest mortality rates, with 10.55 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. They were followed, in order, by Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander infants, American Indian and Alaska Native infants, Hispanic infants, and white infants.

Infants of Asian mothers experienced the highest surge in death rates, increasing by 17% from 2020 to 2021. But even with the jump, they had the lowest death rates of all racial and ethnic groups studied, at 3.69 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Released Sept. 12 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, the report was based on data from birth and death certificates from every state as well as Guam, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

Mortality ranged from a low of 2.77 infant deaths per 1,000 births in North Dakota to a high of 9.39 in Mississippi. Seventeen states had death rates that were significantly higher than the overall U.S. rate. Most were in the South.

Although the new data reflect deaths recorded during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease was not among the five leading causes of death for infants, which included birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome and maternal complications.

A January issue brief from The Commonwealth Fund that compared the U.S. to 12 other high-income countries ranked America last for infant mortality. Norway ranked first, with just 1.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

Hazardous chemicals found in cleaning product emissions

Emissions from common household cleaning products may be putting people’s health at risk, a new study finds.

Researchers from the Environmental Working Group tested 30 products — including glass, bathroom, stain and all-purpose cleaners — finding 530 volatile organic compounds. About 36% of the compounds, also known as VOCs, were deemed hazardous, according to the study, which was published Sept. 13 in Chemosphere.

Products that were labeled as “green” emitted about half as many VOCs as conventional products, and those that were both “green” and fragrance-free emitted eight times fewer VOCs. 

The products with the highest hazards were conventional cleaners that emitted chemicals such as isopropanol, toluene and chloroform. Health harms linked to VOCs include respiratory problems, increased cancer risks and developmental and reproductive complications.

Previous research has found that workers in the cleaning industry have a 50% higher risk of developing asthma and a 43% higher risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than other workers. Indoor exposure to cleaning product emissions is also a risk for children’s health, the researchers noted.

Other common sources of indoor VOC exposure include cooking, furniture, building materials and heating appliances.

Falls underreported by home health care providers

Home health agencies often fail to report serious falls among their patients, calling safety data into question, a new federal report says. 

Researchers with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General examined Medicare claims, finding that 55% of falls that required hospitalization were not included in assessment reports from home health agencies.

Reporting of falls was lower for younger people receiving home health care and for Black, Hispanic and Asian patients, according to the report, which was released Sept. 7. Reporting by for-profit home health agencies was worse than that by nonprofit and government-owned agencies.

Home health agencies — which care for people within their homes — are required to submit regular patient assessments to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as a condition of Medicare participation. CMS uses the data to provide information on home health care quality. But the reporting failures call the accuracy of publicly shared data on falls into question, the report said.

Falls are the leading cause of injury for older U.S. adults, resulting in 920,000 annual hospitalizations and $70 billion in medical costs. About 100 seniors die from fall-related injuries every day, according to a Sept. 1 study by CDC researchers, which found that 14 million older adults reported one or more falls in the previous year.

Fine-particle air pollution linked to breast cancer

People who live in areas with high levels of fine-particle air pollution are at elevated risk for breast cancer, a new federal study shows.

Researchers compared health data on more than 500,000 Americans with their regional exposure to fine-particle air pollution, also known as PM2.5. They found that every 10-cubic-meter increase in PM2.5 was associated with an 8% increase in overall breast cancer risk, translating to an additional 15,870 cases.

Malignant tumors linked to PM2.5 were more likely to be estrogen receptor-positive than -negative, suggesting that the pollution may be linked to endocrine disruption, according to the team of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Cancer Institute researchers. Most breast tumors in U.S. women are estrogen receptor-positive, noted the study, which was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

While the research did not examine links to breast cancer by race and ethnicity, study authors said they saw a notable difference in pollution exposure among populations, with Black participants more likely to be exposed to the highest PM2.5 levels compared to white participants. 

PM2.5 sources include emissions from vehicles, coal-fired power plants, wildfires and industrial operations.