A new study finds that exposure to crack cocaine in the womb is not as harmful to a child’s health as being raised in poverty.
Perhaps the hysteria over “crack babies” was misplaced.
Babies whose mothers smoked crack cocaine while pregnant do not face the kinds of health risks that many scientists initially feared, a new study has concluded.
In 1989, Hallam Hurt, who was then the chair of neonatology at Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center, began to study the long term health prospects for children born to mothers who had smoked crack during pregnancy.
At the time, Philadelphia was at the center of the nation’s crack epidemic, and a separate study found that one out of every six babies born at the city’s hospitals was to a mother who had tested positive for cocaine, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
This past June, after 25 years of following people born at the height of the city’s crack epidemic, Hurt unveiled the results of her study, which concluded that, in terms of overall negative health effects, a mother’s crack use was not as harmful as whether or not the child grew up in poverty.
“Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine,” Hurt said in a recent lecture.
Hurt followed 224 near-term or full-term babies, half who had mothers who used cocaine during pregancy, and half who did not. All of the babies, the majority of whom were African American, were born into low-income families.
When comparing the two groups of babies, Hurt found that crack use of the mother during pregnancy did not result in significantly lower IQ, as many researchers had posited.
Instead, Hurt found that the IQ of her subjects was lower across the board than national averages, leading her to conclude that poverty was the reason.
Hurts’ conclusions have been backed up by other research. Claire Coles, a psychiatry professor at Emory University who has been following a group of poor Atlanta children to measure the effects of crack cocaine, is unsurprised by Hurts’ findings.
“As a society we say, ‘Cocaine is bad and therefore it must cause damage to babies,’ ” Coles told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “When you have a myth, it tends to linger for a long time.”
Hurt’s study, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, does note that pregnant mothers who use crack risk a host of possible health complications, including drastically higher blood pressure, premature labor, and damage to the placenta.
Still, the notion that babies whose mothers smoked the drug while pregnant were relegating them to a lifetime of misery was not supported by her findings.