- CRITTER TALK
According to a study published in the science journal, Environmental Health, air pollution poses a risk to pregnant women and their babies,
Traffic-generated air pollutants, particularly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), are linked to a 30% increase in premature births. Some of the pollutants were specific to particular areas due to industry and urbanization. Researchers clearly linked the increase the risk of premature birth with overall exposure to widespread pollutants,.
Premature delivery (pre-term birth) is often associated with low birth weight of the baby. Both conditions are associated with increased risks of developmental problems, including respiratory distress, heart problems, gastrointestinal difficulties, and increased risk of various infections.
Air quality information was derived from three separate sources, which included data relating to pollution from carbon concentrations, monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and fine particulate matter. Researchers led by Michelle Wilhelm, Assistant Professor in Residence at the UCLA School of Public Health, found that Southern California women exposed to traffic-related air pollution had a 30% higher risk of pre-term birth.
Investigators studied 100,000 births in a five-mile radius of air quality monitoring stations in Los Angeles, California and compared the babies’ exposure to specific air pollutants and length of gestation, making adjustments for variables such as maternal age, ethnicity, education, and whether mothers gave birth before. Researchers confirmed that PAH chemicals found in soot are associated with the highest risk of premature births, and that traffic is the biggest source of PAH pollution.
Dr. Beate Ritz, co-author of the study and Epidemiology Professor of Epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health, stated Even at air pollution levels in Los Angeles, which are much lower than in previous decades, we still see adverse birth outcomes that we attribute to traffic-related air toxins.
The study found that exposure other toxins, such as benzene and fine particulates from diesel engines, is linked to a 10% increased risk of premature both; exposure to ammonium nitrate particles is associated with a 21% increased risk.
Investigators noted local weather and location play a role in exposure. Women who live in coastal areas, where winds presumably help disperse air pollution, experience lower risks than women in urban areas.
Air pollution is known to be associated with low birth weight and premature birth. Our results show that traffic-related PAH are of special concern as pollutants, and that PAH sources besides traffic contributed to premature birth.
The increase in premature birth risk due to ammonium nitrate particles suggests secondary pollutants are also negatively impacting the health of unborn babies. To reduce the effects of these pollutants on public health, it is important that accurate modeling of local and regional spatial and temporal air pollution be incorporated into pollution policies.
This research corresponds with a whole body of literature culled over the past decade which show problems between a woman’s exposure to pollution and pregnancy and subsequent health of the baby, said Dr. Philip Landrigan, Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. (Landrigan was not involved in the California research.)
He said, It’s known that when pollutants get into pregnant women and their baby, they disrupt the metabolism of the baby. Infants exposed to air pollution are at higher risk for asthma, respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The researchers noted that factors other than pollution may contribute to premature births. Women living in affected areas are more likely to be Hispanic, born outside the U.S., have lower-income, and rely on government health insurance. The researchers were unable to control for the effects of smoking because their research centered solely on birth records.
Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, Chair of Environmental Policy at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, added The findings are complex because most of the populations at risk are populations with historic health disparities. They may not have easy access to health care, or may live in areas where pollution is rampant.
She also said that although these findings are critical, funding limitations make additional research impossible to study the full effects of air pollution. If we were able to do this right, we would actually directly measure air pollution outdoors, indoors and on the people themselves. The contributions of indoor and personal exposure are in many cases greater than outdoor exposure.
Lichtveld explained that exposure is increased by putting gas in a car. In that case, the amount of benzene is increased. Smoking is also another source of personal exposure.
Experts state the best ways to avoid babies’ health-related problems due to pollution is to limit exposure to traffic-related air pollution, to move out of the areas, and keep off the roads. These options, of course, are not feasible. Ritz added that not smoking and eating a lot of fruits and vegetables can help the body fight toxins are other options.
She noted that environmental regulations must also change.
We clearly need to reconsider transportation policies to reduce exposures to large populations in dense metropolitan areas
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Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets limits on certain types of air pollution.
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