Air Pollution Particles Found In Mothers’ Placentas, Study Says

Air Pollution Particles Found In Mothers' Placentas, Study Says

Scientists have found evidence of air pollution particles in the placentas of five women living in London.

The research comes from Queen Mary’s University of London. It provides the first evidence to show toxic particles can pass from a mother’s lungs to her placenta.

Air Pollution Particles Found In Mothers’ Placentas, Study Says

There is plenty of evidence to show the potential harmful effects of pollution on unborn babies. We tend to think air pollution is worse in cities. It’s also a problem in rural and country areas.

Air pollution comes from a number of sources:

  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Building emissions
  • Smoke and soot
  • Dust
  • Chemicals
  • Ozone
  • Nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide

Prolonged exposure to air pollution can cause a number of problems. And although pollution isn’t healthy for anyone, it has a particularly severe effect on vulnerable populations, especially unborn babies.

Previous research has linked high exposure to air pollution during pregnancy with an increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight, infant mortality and childhood respiratory problems.

A report from UNICEF shows 2 billion children live in environments containing toxic levels of air pollution.

The report found 17 million babies experience hazardous levels of air pollution. This is six times higher than levels recommended in the World Health Organization guidelines.

A study from the UK linked air pollution with an increased risk of low birth weight in babies, leading to long term health problems. The research team pointed out there was very little opportunity for pregnant women to limit their exposure to air pollution. This paves the way for future problems.

What Does This Study Show?

The researchers looked at the placentas from five women who were living in London during their pregnancies. All the women were non-smokers and had uncomplicated pregnancies.

The women had healthy babies, via planned c-section. They consented to the study of their placentas after the births of their babies.

The researchers studied 3,500 macrophages from the five placentas. Macrophages are cells that form part of the immune system. They engulf harmful materials such as bacteria and pollution particles. Researchers found 60 cells containing 72 small black areas, which looked like carbon particles.

The study was presented last month by Dr Norrice Liu, a paediatrician and clinical research fellow, and Dr Lisa Miyashita, a post-doctoral researcher, at the European Respiratory Society International Congress.

Dr Liu explained:

“Our results provide the first evidence that inhaled pollution particles can move from the lungs into the circulation and then to the placenta. We do not know whether the particles we found could also move across into the foetus, but our evidence suggests that this is indeed possible. We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby’s body to have an adverse effect, because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact on the foetus”.

The president of the European Respiratory Society, Professor Mina Gaga, who was not involved in the study, said:

“This new research suggests a possible mechanism of how babies are affected by pollution while being theoretically protected in the womb. This should raise awareness amongst clinicians and the public regarding the harmful effects of air pollution in pregnant women. We need stricter policies for cleaner air, to reduce the impact of pollution on health worldwide because we are already seeing a new population of young adults with health issues”.

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Fiona Peacock CONTRIBUTOR

Fiona Peacock is a writer, researcher and lover of all things to do with pregnancy, birth and motherhood (apart from the lack of sleep). She is a home birth advocate, passionate about gentle parenting and is also really tired.


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