Living in an affluent, tree-lined community far from urban industry is no guarantee that you'll be safe from air pollution released dozens of miles away in another state.

That much has been known for years.

But a new study aims to underscore just how insidious and deleterious these emissions can be.

The researchers at Lehigh University and University of Pennsylvania found that an entire generation of New Jersey babies born as far as 30 miles downwind from a Pennsylvania coal-burning power plant were more likely to experience adverse health effects before birth.

The study measured the instances of underweight newborns in four counties in the northwestern part of the state, looking at ZIP codes that lined up with the direction of the wind blowing from the Portland Generating Station in Upper Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania.

Babies born to mothers who lived in Hunterdon, Warren, Morris and Sussex counties between 1990 and 2006 were 6.5 percent more likely to be born with low birth weight and 17.12 percent more likely to be born with very low birth weight.

The power plant, which is on the banks of the Delaware River across from Warren County, was considered one of the dirtiest facilities in the country, ranking fifth nationally on a list published by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group that is critical of the coal industry.

The power plant's coal-fired generators were shut in 2014 after the plant was targeted by state and federal regulators for exceeding Clean Air Act limits on sulfur dioxide emissions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 found that the plant was the sole source for the sulfur dioxide pollution in Warren, Sussex, Morris and Hunterdon counties.

Map published by the New Jersey DEP indicating the Portland Generating Station's emissions impact on surrounding counties. (NJDEP)

The state Department of Environmental Protection said that the plant's emissions in 2009 were greater than the emissions produced by all of New Jersey's power plants combined.

The plant is now used by Princeton-based NRG Energy as a backup facility burning diesel.

But that may have been too late for an entire generation whose parents may not have been aware of what they were exposing their unborn children to, the study suggests.

Portland Generating Station's sulfur dioxide emissions compared to all New Jersey plants combined. (NJDEP)


How N.J. generates its electricity:
Nuclear — 48%
Natural gas — 47.5%
Renewables — 2.2%
Coal — 1.9%
Petroleum — 0.3%

How the rest of the country generates it:
Coal — 33%
Natural gas — 33%
Nuclear — 20%
Renewables — 7%
Hydroelectric — 6%
Petroleum — 1%

Source: U.S. Energy Information Admin.

The researchers said they hope their findings lead to federal environmental regulations that take into account fetal health.

Lower birth weight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces) can result in scores of health problems in childhood and adulthood. Babies with better birth weights tend to grow up to do better in school and earn more money, research has shown.

What is notable about these four New Jersey counties is that they are predominantly white and wealthy — factors that usually predict better birth weights and populations that are on average healthier and with greater access to private health insurance.

Researchers did not include the Warren ZIP codes that were immediately next to the power plant because they figured that people who live close to the facility would be more likely to take preventative measures, such as installing indoor air filters.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. 

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