Pollution affects us all living on the planet. It is the elderly and the young who are the most visibly at risk from the illnesses that pollution brings. What goes unseen and unnoticed, perhaps, is how pollution affects those yet to be born. And this is a global catastrophe we aren’t speaking enough about. An entire generation of children being affected by pollution from the time they are in the womb, effects that lead to consequences both in utero growth and a lifetime of health issues, some chronic. A growing body of research has raised red flags about how pollution can affect a fetus in utero. Findings include an increase in the possibility of premature births, low birth weight, high blood pressure in childhood and even infant mortality and childhood respiratory problems have all been linked to in-utero exposure to air pollution.
We owe it to the unborn generation to provide them an environment both within the womb and without where they can grow safely
A study published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention states that the chromosomes of a developing foetus can be affected by exposure by urban air pollution.
The study conducted by Frederica P. Perera of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health studied 60 children born in New York City to non-smoking mothers in a study that began in 1998. The team studies exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from vehicular emissions, tobacco smoke and power plants in Manhattan neighbourhoods. The study found that exposure to pollutants was positively to chromosomal abnormalities in foetal tissue. To quote Perera, “This evidence that air pollutants can alter chromosomes in utero is troubling since other studies have validated this type of genetic alteration as a biomarker of cancer risk.”
Other studies have found much the same. A study conducted in China with mothers to be who were exposed to a high level of air pollutants during pregnancy found that they had a higher risk of abnormal fetal growth. This study was conducted with over 8,000 pregnant women in Lanzhou, China between 2010 to 2012, by the Yale School of Public Health and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The research found that higher levels of exposure to pollutants from car emissions, industries had a positive association with foetal head circumference overgrowth.
According to Dr Tripti Sharan, Senior Consultant Dept of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, BLK Superspeciality Hospital, New Delhi, “The pollutants have the potential to be carcinogens , and can directly produce cancers like retinoblastoma or can even modulate our genes in utero to produce cancers. The pollutants can also induce structural defects in the unborn foetus if the exposure has been in the first three months of pregnancy. The pollution can impair the blood supply to the baby and can cause a whole spectrum of problems starting from early abortions, premature labour, still births & intrauterine deaths to growth retardation of the baby.”
According to a report in The Hindu, “The Capital has recorded 21,281 stillbirth cases between 2013-2018 (till December), with the deaths remaining a steady 3,000-plus in 2013, 2014, 2015 and then going up to 5,000-plus in 2017-18.”
Says Dr Munjaal V Kapadia, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Director, Namaha Healthcare, “There has been a rise in the incidence of these problems but it is hard to pinpoint air pollution as the one single cause without proper randomised studies. However in the world’s most polluted cities, there has certainly been a rise in these problems.”
Adds Dr Sharan, “There has been a definite rise in a lot many diseases, including that of infertility, recurrent abortions and a lot of abnormalities being detected in the unborn baby.”
Research from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), UK, has shown that soot from toxic air can reach the placenta, and possibly the foetus too. The research found that tiny particles of carbon have been found in placentas. x
Says Dr Kapadia, “The possible side effects of air pollution on the developing foetus are preterm birth, growth restriction, a small increase in the incidence of autism and development of asthma later in children.”
It is not just the foetus, but also the pregnant mother who can suffer due to pollution according to Dr Sharan, “Pollution also causes stress and even noise pollution and resulting problems which can be physical or psychological too. Many pregnant women suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes , hypothyroidism and many other types of medical problems because of rising level of pollution.”
There are long term consequences to exposure to intense pollution when still in the womb, both physical and cognitive. Exposure to (PAHs) while in utero have been linked through research findings to developmental delay, lower verbal IQ, anxiety, depression as well as attention issues amongst children. To quote Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the study, “The more prenatal exposure to PAH, the bigger the white matter problems the kids had. And the bigger the white matter problems, the more severe symptoms of ADHD, aggression and slow processing they had on cognitive tasks.”
Dr Sharan says, “In the long run these babies will have to struggle with development defects, cognitive problems plus the increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases later in life plus the propensity to have cancers later.” Dr Kapadia adds, “Long term effects are the development of autism and asthma in children of mothers exposed to high levels of air pollution.”
For pregnant women, relocating to less polluted zones might not always be possible for pregnant women, but precautions to lessen their exposure to pollutants. Dr Kapadia recommends basic precautions like getting an air purifier at home and always wearing a mask when headed out. Dr Sharan adds “Using eco-friendly fuel at home, proper exhaust and ventilation, avoiding smoking both active and passive, timely antenatal checkups and ultrasounds, taking plenty of water and a healthy diet, keeping doors and windows closed when the PM residue goes high. Room purifiers have a limited role to play but can still be useful.” She adds, “Pesticides in food are another grey area, as is radioactive waste.”
While it might not be possible to completely eliminate one’s exposure to toxic air pollution while pregnant, it is possible to minimise it to the extent one can. This is a health risk that barely gets spoken about or even acknowledged in the public domain, but speak about it we must. After all, we owe it to the unborn generation to provide them an environment both within the womb and without where they can grow safely and to their healthiest potential.