Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Smaller babies born in 9/11 climate of fear
Roger Dobson and Steven Swinford

Study finds birth weights fell even in Europe after twin towers attack.

THE shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America led to a drop in the weight of babies born in western Europe, according to a study published this week.

Researchers discovered that babies born between three and six months later were on average nearly 50 grams (1.7 ounces) lighter than they should have been. They say that the stress and anxiety caused by the attacks led directly to more underweight babies.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, is the latest in a body of work that seeks to quantify the precise effects distant events can have by creating a climate of fear. Instant communications means people thousands of miles away may experience similar symptoms to those actually present.

Professor Gerard Essed, an obstetrician from Maastricht University who co-authored the report, said: “The impact of 9/11 was so huge it affected everyone in the world. For these women [in the Netherlands] the impact was further magnified by the emotions of pregnancy. It was a very, very clear correlation. We were surprised.”

Previous research conducted in New York showed that women who were in the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks or near it within the following three weeks had babies that were on average 120g (4.2oz) lighter. Doctors have attributed the difference to stress and the large quantities of dust and debris in the air at the time.

The terrorist attacks also led to an unusually high level of stillbirths of male foetuses, a phenomenon noted elsewhere during natural disasters and wartime.

A team from the University of California, Berkeley, which studied data relating to 700,000 births in New York between 1996 and 2002, showed that the stress of the Al-Qaeda attacks resulted in the proportion of baby boys to girls dropping from the usual 1.05:1 to a level below parity in January 2002.

The Dutch researchers followed 1,885 women who were at least 12 weeks pregnant at the time of the September 11 attacks. They compared their babies with the offspring of 1,258 women who were pregnant exactly a year later. They excluded premature babies from the study and took into account other factors that might affect the babies’ weight such as smoking and the age of the mother.

Babies in the womb on September 11 were 48g (1.7oz) lighter than those in the later group. The scientists believe the difference was caused by high levels of cortisol in the mother, a hormone associated with stress and anxiety.

The hormone, which helps break down and burn off fats, can transfer from the mother to the foetus, resulting in weight loss. Stress can also result in loss of appetite and cause the blood vessels to constrict, reducing the flow of blood to the baby and potentially stunting growth.

Essed said the results were alarming and indicated that the impact on health of “remote” threats could not simply be dismissed. “We need to do more to reassure pregnant woman who may be stressed,” he said. “We need to be telling them that there are reasons to be confident in their pregnancy.”

The impact of traumatic events on the health of the wider community has long intrigued medical researchers. In 1942 a study in The Lancet, the medical journal, examined the health of Londoners who survived aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe. According to The Lancet, there was a 50% rise in the number of Londoners who went on to suffer from peptic ulcers. A similar phenomenon occurred in 1995 following the Kobe earthquake in Japan, which killed 5,100.

However, Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University, is sceptical about the true impact of catastrophes on people who are not directly caught up in them.

Furedi, who describes the syndrome as “culturally induced trauma”, said: “If enough people tell you that you are pale you may begin to feel there is something wrong with you.”

First published in Sunday Times, 12 November 2006