In November last year, the Delhi Government had declared a public health emergency as the air pollution hugely escalated and almost choked the city. Clearly, the situation has only worsened. Pollution, across the country, is is now plunging to alarming levels.

Air pollution is known to be the root cause of various health problems. While air pollution isn’t healthy for any living creature, it has the worst impact on pregnant women and their babies. Let’s take a look at the harmful effects of pollution on pregnant women and their children, and the measures we can take to protect them.  

Key Takeaways

  • Studies suggest exposure to air pollution during pregnancy increases the risk of birth defects in children.
  • It is important to note that air pollution contributes to lower fertility rates in both, men and women.
  • It is advisable to check your area’s air quality index report each day, which reveals particulate pollution levels, to avoid potential threat

Polluted air

It’s the pollution caused by smoke and harmful gases. Polluted air comprises particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, vehicle exhaust, building emissions, second-hand smoke, dust, and chemicals. According to WHO, poor air quality is directly linked with risks of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases.

Potential risks and dangers involved during pregnancy

Here are some of the disturbing consequences that women may face during pregnancy, which thereby affects their babies, before or after birth.

  • Preterm birth: Although premature birth can happen for more reasons than one, air pollution is one major reason for it. Babies born before term carry a risk of neurological disorders and physical disabilities. 
  • Low birth weight: The particulates emitted by polluted air can seep inside the body, leading to the baby’s fragile health. It directly causes low birth weight of the newborn. 
  • Brain development: Studies have shown that prenatal exposure to air pollution could affect brain development in children. A recent research revealed that women exposed to high particulate pollution during their third trimesters are twice as likely to deliver a child with autism.
  • Asthma: Air pollution aggravates asthma. Asthma, during pregnancy, can cause the baby to suffer from lack of oxygen. This in turn leads to poor growth and premature birth. It can also increase the baby’s chances of developing asthma later in life since particulate matter pollution breaks the placenta.
  • Fertility Problems: Women aren’t the only ones who are at risk. Multiple studies have shown that air pollution contributes to lower fertility rates in both, men and women. The particulates are so harmful that, in some cases, it directly leads to miscarriages.

Measures to protect yourself from pollution during  pregnancy

While it’s impossible to avoid every potential threat, there are certain measures one can consider to decrease exposure to air pollution.

  • Stay aware and read the Air Quality Index (AQI):  Consider checking your area’s air quality index report each day, which reveals particulate pollution levels. Begin by simply staying aware about the fluctuation of air quality levels and then plan your schedules accordingly. There are websites and apps, like AQI and AQICN.org,for checking the Air Quality  and its impact in a particular region. 
  • Protect your air: Outdoor air pollution isn’t the only cause for worry. It’s important for pregnant women to stay in houses that use natural household cleaners and detectors. One step is to to purchase dependable air purifiers for your home. These devices remove everything from smoke to allergens from your air. It will, to  some extent, help the baby grow in a healthier environment.
  • Consider air-purifying plants and purifiers: Plants are natural filter of air. They can help you and your growing baby breathe healthier air in and around. 
  • Public health efforts: Authorities must continue highlighting the importance of minimizing population-level exposure. The concerned bodies should lay down guidelines and awareness campaigns for the same.

SheThePeople spoke with Dr Ritu Bhat Tripathi and Dr Sneha Shah about this major issue.

Dr Ritu believes that in the times that we’re living in, air pollution’s impact on unborn babies amounts to a global health calamity. “While there are several problems, like lack of clean water, which results in a large number of deaths in infants, air pollution is something that is the most toxic today. The most responsive time of exposure, in a majority, happens to be the one month before and after conception. However, women in their third trimester, too, are at a major risk when exposed to highly polluted air.” she explained.

She said there are many cases she has handled where pregnant women have developed asthma. “The harmful particulates of air are adversely affecting them. They begin with severe coughing and it develops to serious diseases eventually. It’s unfortunate to see that asthma has become so common in children these days,” she added.

“This is an extremely important public health risk. The baby is not just the mother’s responsibility. Everyone has to work towards creating a safer environment for pregnant women and their babies to be born safely.”

Dr Shah points out other health concerns, too, which are low birth weight and brain development issues. “Look at the alarming rates everywhere. Studies and seminars have shown an increasing rate of autism in children. Low birth rate has become another common factor in child birth. There are many reasons behind it, but looking at the air pollution around, it’s not wrong to say this is one major reason.”

She emphasised that it’s always better to monitor the air quality and then step out. “It’s important to stay and roam around in areas where there’s more greenery and thus a better air quality. Citizens will have to take preventive measures themselves to safeguard the future generation’s health,” she suggested.

An instance of Delhi’s air pollution

A Unicef study found that 17 million babies breathe air that is six times more toxic than the guidelines. However, many cities around the world, like India’s capital Delhi, suffer far higher levels of toxic air, raising concerns of adverse impacts on unborn babies. Delhi, which is amongst the most polluted cities of the world, has an air quality emitting high levels of pollutants, compared to other cities in the country.  

People are guaranteed to come across one or all of these pollutants: Vehicular emissions, emissions from power plants fuelled by coal and gas, trash burning smoke, and crop burning smoke for those living on outskirts.  

These pollutants contribute to forming particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10). It’s a substance that can cause significant harm to our bodies. For pregnant women, this leads to long-term consequences. 

We’ve long gone past the alarming stage. It’s now time to take remedial actions if we want to provide a safer environment for children. It’s important to note that even though the air looks clear, it might still be contaminated. We need to take preventive measures in our own hands because the air is not becoming cleaner, or safer, any time soon. There’s a lot more effort needed than we think. 

Also Read: Tamil Nadu Teen Girl builds Satellite to Study Air Pollution

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