Pollution may be hindering fetal development

Exposure to pollution can hinder fetal growth and development – a new study appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reveals.

Heavy pollution in Tiananmen Square in Beijing (credit: Diego Azubel/EPA)

Heavy pollution in Tiananmen Square in Beijing (credit: Diego Azubel/EPA)

The study found that women who were pregnant in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics – when levels of pollution were significantly reduced in preparation of the sporting events – gave birth to children with higher birth weights compared to those who were pregnant before or after the games. In the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese Government launched a series of aggressive measurements to improve Beijing’s air quality. These included restrictions on automobile and truck use, closing of factories, halting of construction projects and even seeding of clouds to induce rainfall.

These measurements turned out to be quite successful. They produced a significant decrease in the concentrations of particulate and gaseous air pollution, including a 60% reduction in sulphur dioxide, a 48% reduction in carbon monoxide, a 43% reduction in nitrogen dioxide and an overall reduction in small air particulates (<2.5 um in diameter). They also created the ideal conditions for scientists to conduct a “natural experiment” and study the effects of pollution on health.

In this specific experiment, researchers looked at 83,672 term births for mothers in four urban districts in Beijing. They compared birth weights for mothers whose eighth month of pregnancy occurred during the 2008 Olympics with those whose eighth month of pregnancy occurred at the same time of year in the previous (2007) and following (2009) year. The babies born in 2008 were on average 23 grams larger than those born in 2007 and 2009. “The results of this study demonstrate a clear association between changes in air pollutant concentrations and birth weight” – says David Q. Rich, lead author of the study. “These findings not only illustrate one of the many significant health consequences of pollution, but also demonstrate that this phenomenon can be reversed”.

The study suggests that pollution may be strongly affecting the development of the fetus, especially during the latest stages of pregnancy when the fetus undergoes the greatest amount of physical growth, and consolidation of the central nervous, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. While the causes are not fully understood, maternal inflammation, altered placental function and reduced nutrient delivery to the fetus are what researchers advance as possible culprits.

These results have a silver lining. As Junfeng Zhang, co-author of the research, eloqurently puts it: “This study shows that pollution controls – even short-term ones – can have positive public health benefits”.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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