Air Pollution Might Be Impacting Developing Fetuses and Infants - Public Goods Blog

Air Pollution Might Be Impacting Developing Fetuses and Infants

When you think about the consequences of climate change and increased carbon emissions, it’s common to focus on the wide-ranging impacts — from devastating natural disasters to the depletion of vital natural resources.

ultrasound of a fetus

It’s also normal to center on the future of our planet. If large portions become uninhabitable in the not-so-distant future, what does that mean for our children and grandchildren?

All of those are valid considerations, but it’s also important to remember that the consequences of climate change are happening right here, right now, and impacting people’s day-to-day lives in real — and frankly, terrifying — ways.

As a mother, I don’t think there’s anything that gets me more upset than when I think about any harm that could come to a baby or child. That’s why I was stopped in my tracks when I recently came across not one — but two — new studies finding strong links between air pollution and declining fetal and infant health.

The first study, published in Nature Sustainability, looked at how increased levels of pollution in China have affected developing fetuses. The study specifically examined the phenomenon of “missed miscarriages,” which is when a fetus dies in the first trimester, but there are no signs of a miscarriage, and the mother continues to feel pregnant until she realizes she isn’t. I know several women who have experienced missed miscarriages, and they are traumatizing on many levels.

The researchers, based in China, looked at the medical records of 255,668 pregnant women who lived in Beijing from 2009 to 2017. They noted these women’s exposure to air pollution from their workplace and homes, as well as proximity to cars, trucks and industrial emissions. Researchers concentrated on four types of pollutants: PM 2.5, sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon dioxide.

The researchers found that 6.8% of the women in their sample had suffered a missed miscarriage, and they noted that “in all groups, maternal exposure to each air pollutant was associated with the risk.” Wow — this is a striking and devastating find.

The researchers believe more studies should be carried out to understand these links better, but also note that this is one of several studies showing a relationship between pollution and fetal demise.

As Tom Clemens, lecturer from the University of Edinburgh, told The New York Times in reference to this study: “There has been a lot of evidence suggesting a link between air pollution and pregnancy outcomes in general, particularly the risk of a premature birth and a low weight baby.”

“This is one of the first studies to link particle pollution to this particular outcome of pregnancy, so in that sense it’s very important,” Clemens added.

There is one silver lining to the situation in Beijing, the study researchers argued. Since 2013 the risk of missed miscarriage has actually decreased. This decline has coincided with a reduction in pollution rates in the city, which further lends credence to the theory that pollution and missed miscarriages are linked.

The second study I found also has to do with how air pollution affects developing fetuses, but looked at the impact it can have after these babies are born. The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, was carried out by researchers from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. The research team was measuring “heart rate variability” of babies born to mothers from Boston.

Whitney Cowell, lead author on the study, explained to WBUR that heart rate variability has to do with your heart’s ability to speed up and slow down as you take in air. Having a strong “heart rate variability” means your body is able to optimize oxygen distribution throughout the body. A lower heart variability rate is problematic and can lead to all kinds of health consequences, including depression and heart disease.

In their studies, researchers followed 237 women from the Boston area. During pregnancy, air pollution was measured on a daily basis in these women’s neighborhoods. Then, six months after their babies were born, the researchers noted the babies’ heart rate variability.

There was a clear link between pollution rates and lower heart rate variability — i.e., the higher the pollution rates, the greater the baby’s risk for lower heart rate variability.

“For every increase in air pollution, the outcome seems to get worse,” Cowell told WBUR.

The researchers also found that the babies who’d been exposed to higher air pollution had dulled stress response rates. Babies are built to react to stress with an increased heart rate and a fight-or-flight reaction, but these babies did not show positive signs of a normal stress response.

This outcome greatly troubled researchers.

“They look very stressed to an observer who sees them cry. Despite that, we are not seeing the stress physiologically in that system,” said Dr. Rosaline Wright, professor at Mount Sinai and another of the study’s authors. “It’s blunted. Ideally, you want to see that system more capable of responding to stressors.”

The researchers emphasized that developing fetuses are much more sensitive to pollution and other environmental hazards, and it might be years before we can fully grasp how pollution is affecting infants and children.

Both of these studies are very troubling, for sure. Yes, as Wright suggested to WBUR, pregnant women can do their best to limit exposure to pollutants. But really—how can a woman living in America in 2020 know for sure that she and her future off-spring will be spared?

My own two sons were born with a few abnormalities — one has a tongue tie; the other has ear tags and a large congenital birthmark. I know in the grand scheme of things, these are relatively innocuous abnormalities, but I often wonder to what extent environmental hazards may have contributed.

My hope now is that medical research continues to stay on top of the links between environmental hazards, developing fetuses, and infants — and of course that real change is enacted to decrease carbon emissions everywhere and protect the earth.

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