Pollution affects babies even before birth

Tiny polluting particles produced in and outdoors have been linked to millions of premature births...
20 October 2021


Emissions from factory


New research has linked exposure to air pollution during pregnancy to almost 6 million premature births and 3 million underweight babies globally in just one year. Premature births, in particular, are the leading cause of infant mortality in the first four weeks after birth worldwide and can lead to long-term health consequences.

The analysis, which was published in PLOS Medicine, looked at a type of pollution called PM2.5, which is formed of particles that are less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. Their small size allows them to travel deep into a pregnant person’s lungs and then into the bloodstream, from where they can cause significant damage.

Rakesh Ghosh, the lead author of the study, explained the three ways in which these particles could affect a baby, “One, by affecting the development of the placenta and the umbilical cord. The second could be [that] these particles induce some kind of [...] inflammation of the membranes and cause the baby to be born early. And the third possible pathway could be by causing oxidative damage to the DNA.”

The particles in question can be produced by a range of sources, including vehicles and coal power plants. Importantly, they can also be caused by indoor sources, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, through the burning of wood, coal, or dung for cooking. Despite outdoor air pollution being more widespread across the world, indoor air pollution accounted for two-thirds of the estimated effects in this analysis.

On tackling the problem, Rakesh said: “Outdoor air pollution [...] is ubiquitous. It has to be acted upon by the different authorities. For countries where indoor air pollution is a problem, I think a message should be part of the pre-natal care. Do whatever you can to minimise exposure to indoor air pollution.”

Rakesh finished with a warning, “It is high time to realise that air pollution is not just about premature deaths, but it is harming the babies and our future generations even before they are born.”


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