There are many harmful effects of pollution from which children and adults suffer. Now, a few studies in different parts of the world have shown that even unborn babies are affected by air pollution. Women who are exposed to high levels of pollution are more likely to give birth to children with birth defects. Air pollution and birth defects have now been linked by studies conducted in the US and the Netherlands.
Air pollution and birth defects are closely linked
A study in the US has revealed that women who have been exposed to severe air pollution before conceiving are 20% more likely to give birth to babies with birth defects. The new research found that if a woman who was living in a 5 km radius of an extremely polluted area, even a month before conception, she is likely to have babies with defects like cleft lips or palates.
The problems in pregnancy due to air pollution can increase by 19% with every 0.01mg/m3 increase in particulates or fine particles in the air, which are absorbed into the body when we breathe. The particulates, weighing less than 0.0025 mg, are emitted by vehicles’ exhaust fumes. When these particulates are breathed in, they get deposited in lungs, through which they enter the circulation of the body. Women who are pregnant suffer from ‘internal stress’ or inflammation when they breathe in particulate polluted air, causing pregnancy issues in women.
Cincinnati University research finds air pollution causes birth defects
290,000 babies from Ohio were part of a study conducted by the Cincinnati University. The study period was from 2006 to 2010. The researchers matched the monthly particulate levels to the homes of pregnant women, both before and after they conceived.
They found that air pollution and birth defects were strongly linked. The pollution caused pregnancy issues in women, such as causing the abdomen to protrude.
Results revealed that women who lived within 10 km in a polluted area had an increased risk of giving birth to babies with birth defects. Apart from cleft lips/palates, another complication that could be seen was the protrusion of intestines or the stomach through an opening in the abdomen.
This research came after John Hopkins’s researchers found that children who are exposed to outdoor environmental pollution are more at risk to develop asthma.
Netherlands study links air pollution to brain abnormalities
A recent study in the Netherlands has linked the exposure to air pollution during the fetal stage with the brain abnormalities. This can lead to impaired development of cognitive function in school children, even if the pollution levels are generally considered ‘safe’.
The team of researchers has discovered that the exposure to particulates of fine particles during the child’s life in the womb contributes to a thinner cortex. This might happen to many parts of the brain and leads to brain abnormalities, which cause difficulties with inhibitory ability. That is, the ability to control the self from temptations as well as impulsive behavior, which is linked to mental health issues. Air pollution and birth defects of the brain can lead to behavioral issues later in life.
How was the landmark study conducted?
The Erasmus University Medical Center based in the Netherlands and the ISGlobal in Spain was supported by the ‘La Caxias’ foundation. The team observed the relationship between particulate matter levels and brain development by enrolling pregnant women in the Netherlands and following their children’s lives, from the fetal stage onward.
They analyzed the pollution levels in the homes of 783 children and collected data via air monitoring methods. Fine particles, coarse particles, and nitrogen dioxide levels were monitored. The team of scientists also conducted brain imaging on the brains of children aged 6-10 years. They found abnormalities in the brain’s cortex, particularly in the rostral middle frontal region and the precuneus sections. This finding was despite the fact that the indoor air pollution levels were below the levels specified as safe by the EU.
The study proved that the developing brain in the fetus is vulnerable to the ill effects of pollution, however little the level may be – because the brain in the fetal stage does not have the mechanisms to remove or protect itself from environmental toxins.
Air pollution and birth defects are closely linked, whether they are obvious defects like cleft palates/lips, or defects which become obvious later on as developmental problems. Women who are pregnant need clean air for the healthy development of the fetus. Hence, it is important that the families do whatever they can to reduce pollution and stay in a pollution free environment.