Sooner or later, people will get around to asking: Will PG&E’s widespread Northern California power shutdown result in a baby boom next year?
The phenomenon of “blackout babies” has held fascination for the American public since the Northeast blackout of 1965 when 80 million people lost power for 13 hours.
Ever since then, people have claimed that baby booms ensued after that outage, and another one in the 1970s – with a bevy of babies presumably conceived while potential parents were stuck at home in the dark. But was there ever any proof of that?
“The research done in New York has found it to essentially be an urban myth,” said University of Oregon professor Alfredo Burlando, who has studied the issue here and in sub-Saharan Africa. “There is very little evidence that the short one-day blackouts that occurred caused additional births.”
Burlando said it’s particularly unlikely that a baby boom would occur in a developed nation like the United States because the usage of long-acting birth control methods is so ubiquitous.
But that doesn’t mean power outages don’t result in baby booms, he said.
In Tanzania, where a 2008 blackout lasted for a full month, Burland said, “there was a documented increase in births that was quite substantial.”
Burlando did the field work to document that baby boom, going from one rural hospital to the next to get birth records and comparing them with vital statistics in government records to ensure the mothers had lived in areas affected by the electrical outage. Burland did his bachelor’s and master’s studies in economics at the University of California, Davis, before earning his doctoral degree in the field from Boston University in 2010.
He found a 20 percent increase in births in Tanzania after the extended 2008 blackout.
In the United States and other developed countries, power outages usually last no more than a day or two, he said, so it can be much more difficult to identify the signal indicating that, yes, this is a boom, and it occurred because of the power outage.
Yet, Burlando said, he would bet that some researchers in the future will try to determine not only whether a baby boom resulted but also whether there were other implications in areas such as crime or alcohol use. The answers, he said, are important to understanding the impact of power outages on family finances and multiple health outcomes.
Health care professionals also are encouraging women to start prenatal vitamins ahead of conception to ensure the fetus has the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy neurological development. An unplanned pregnancy could get in the way of that that.
Burlando said: “The main issue with an unplanned pregnancy is whether they’re occurring with families that are stable or unstable. Who the unplanned pregnancies are affecting is important. Are they happening to families that are able to care for children or not? That’s one of the main concerns that you might have. It’s best to have children when you have planned for them as opposed to surprises.”
Although it might be odd to think of these pregnancies as planned, Burlando said, some couples have the resources to support a child and have been planning to do so. The electrical outage, he said, merely presented them with an opportunity to move the pregnancy forward on the timeline.
Although it can be tricky to establish whether a Northern California boom actually occurred, Burlando said, getting access to the data needed to research a potential baby boom is a lot easier in a developed nation such as the United States. In fact, Burlando said, researchers should have enough data to even look at nuances such as whether the birth rate was affected by variations in the length of the blackout within the 34 affected counties.
“You want to be able to count the births over the days, weeks, months around when you’d expect to see an increase in births to see if there’s an anomaly in those counties that were affected, relative to the past, but also relative to nearby counties that did not have the blackouts,” Burlando said.
So, the comparison would be both geographic and historical, looking at whether patterns are similar or have variations. In economics, he said, this statistical research technique is called looking for difference in differences, calculating the effects of variables on outcomes.
“The more data you feed into a statistical model, the better it is,” Burlando said, “so you might want to include not just (one month), but you might want to include all the months of the year, and then in your model, you might want to control for any variations typically seen over those months. There are ways to do that.”
Any discrepancy you observe is indicative of a movement, Burlando said, and if it’s large enough, “you would pick up its significance and then you can say this must be the result of what occurred nine months prior.”