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A study published this month in The New England Journal of Medicine offers a possible explanation for the sharp disparity in infant-mortality rates between blacks and whites.

The study found that black mothers in Boston were three times more likely than white mothers to suffer medical complications during pregnancy that can result in lower birth weights.

The black infant-mortality rate in the United States is double that of white infants, and low-birth-weight babies account for 35 percent of infant deaths.

For the new study, researchers from Harvard University and three Boston hospitals reviewed the medical charts of black infants born with a low birth weight between 1980 and 1985. They found that the mothers of such infants were more likely than white mothers to have experienced such problems as ruptured membranes around the fetus, hypertension, and hemorrhaging.

The findings offer hope that better medical treatment for black mothers can reduce the mortality rate of their babies. Some of the risk conditions, such as hypertension, can be treated prenatally, noted Dr. Paul Wise of the Harvard Medical School, one of the study's authors.

The health of American children rates only a C- grade, according to a "report card'' issued this month by the American Health Foundation.

The organization says that U.S. children are less fit, are at a greater risk for a range of diseases, and are more likely to die from AIDS or violence than they were in the 1980's.

"Children today are fatter, weaker, and more sedentary,'' said Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, a special adviser to the President's Council on Physical Fitness who served as a consultant to the report. He cited studies showing that 50 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys cannot do even one pull-up, and that 40 percent of 5- to 8-year-olds are at risk for heart disease.

The report attributes worsening health statistics to such factors as growing numbers of children living in poverty and the inadequacy of health facilities in schools.

Poor air quality appears to be the cause of more than 20 percent of student absences in Utah County, Utah, elementary schools, according to a Brigham Young University study released this month.

That figure was extrapolated from findings in two of the county's school districts, which showed a correlation between increased student absences and high levels of fine-particle pollution in the two communities over a four-year period.

The study looked at the Provo school district and the Northridge Elementary district in Orem.--J.P.

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