The spread of cheap crack -- a solid, smokable form of cocaine -- through American cities in the 1980s led to concern for so-called "crack babies," victims of prenatal cocaine exposure (PCE). Now, as these children enter their late twenties and early thirties, new research suggests the "epidemic" health threat was a media scare.
There was fear that PCE would cause the children of crack-addicted mothers to suffer long-term incapacities, with studies at the time suggesting irreversible brain damage. Babies were born prematurely, with small heads, often jittery and described as "addicted to crack."
Led by University of Maryland researcher Maureen Black, researchers reviewed 27 studies representing nine cohorts, covering a total of more than 5,000 children born to mothers who used crack cocaine during pregnancy.
The studies covered mostly low-income minority families in major urban areas, and tested "crack babies" for outcomes in behavior, cognition/school performance, brain structure/function and physiological responses.
The study found that although there are minimal differences in PCE babies, that performance in these areas remained affected by economic conditions, continued family drug use and "violence exposure." Distressing symptoms seen at birth were largely attributed to premature delivery, and didn't result in lasting damage.
The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, concluded that "it is now well documented that scientific reports in the 1980s were exaggerated and incorrect in their portrayal of children exposed to cocaine in utero as irreparably damaged." PCE babies also didn't grow up more likely to become crack users, as many had warned.
Crack was cheap and readily available in cities throughout the eighties, hitting African American communities the hardest. Crack contributed to an estimated ten percent increase in crime between 1979 and 1991.
During this time, women who used crack or cocaine during pregnancy would often lose custody of their children and possibly receive jail time. Experts found that exposure to alcohol and tobacco in the womb actually has more significant long-term health effects than PCE.