Revealed: Babies have air pollution particles in their lungs while still in the womb
- Air pollution particles can reach babies in the womb, landmark study finds
- Pollutants from traffic smoke can cross the placenta and enter the baby’s organs
- Experts say the results are ‘worrying’ because organ development happens in the womb
Unborn babies have air pollution particles in their developing lungs and other vital organs as early as the first trimester, a landmark study has found.
Pollutants from traffic fumes can travel through the mother’s bloodstream, through the placenta to the baby’s developing organs during the first 12 weeks.
Experts believe this could mean that pregnant women living in the most polluted parts of the country are at greater risk of stillbirth and that babies are born with health problems.
Scientists from the University of Aberdeen, UK, and the University of Hasselt, Belgium, studied air pollution nanoparticles, called black carbon – or soot particles – to see if they could reach the fetus.
For the first time, they found evidence that pollutants passed through developing organs, including the liver, lungs and brain.
They found dangerous nanoparticles – from car exhaust and fossil fuels – crossing the placenta into the fetus in the womb as early as the third month of pregnancy.
The more air pollution the mothers were exposed to, the higher the level of black carbon nanoparticles found in the baby, according to findings published in Lancet Planetary Health.
Pollutants from traffic fumes can travel through the mother’s bloodstream, through the placenta to the baby’s developing organs during the first 12 weeks
Can pollution reach your baby in the womb?
Research shows that pollution particles can reach the baby in the womb through the placenta.
The highest levels of particles were found in mothers who lived closest to busy roads during pregnancy.
Some small studies have shown an association between air pollution and pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight.
However, many factors increase the risk of these complications and these studies have not proven that air pollution is a direct cause.
More research is needed to better understand the impact of pollution on pregnancy.
All women are exposed to particles of pollution and it is impossible to avoid them completely.
Pregnant women are advised to try not to worry too much and focus on a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Professor Tim Nawrot, from the University of Aberdeen, said: “We know that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and infancy has been linked to stillbirth, prematurity, babies low weight and impaired brain development, with lifelong consequences.
“We show in this study that the number of black carbon particles that enter the mother are transmitted proportionally to the placenta and the baby.
“This means air quality regulation should recognize this transfer during gestation and act to protect the most sensitive stages of human development.”
Black carbon is a sooty black material released into the air by internal combustion engines, coal-fired power plants, and other sources that burn fossil fuels.
It is a major component of particulate matter, an air pollutant linked to serious health problems, including heart disease, respiratory infections and lung cancer.
Previous research on babies found that exposure in the womb increased the risk of low birth weight and premature birth.
Black carbon nanoparticles have been found to enter the placenta, but until now there has been no solid evidence that these particles have entered the fetus.
The results also suggest that public health measures are urgently needed to minimize pregnant women’s exposure to air pollution.
Co-author Professor Paul Fowler said: ‘We were all concerned that if nanoparticles entered the fetus they could directly affect its development in the womb.
“What we have shown for the first time is that black carbon air pollution nanoparticles not only enter the first and second trimester placenta, but also end up in the organs of the developing fetus, including including liver and lungs.
“What is even more worrying is that these black carbon particles are also entering the developing human brain. This means that it is possible for these nanoparticles to interact directly with control systems within human fetal organs and cells.
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