Support Provided ByLearn More
Body + BrainBody & Brain

Particulate Pollution Appears to Drive Down Birthweight

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

A passing truck belching black soot is enough to make you reflexively hold your breath, and for good reason—inhaling diesel and other emissions may make your throat sting, but there are other, potentially more sinister effects that can surface after years of chronic exposure. For millions of people live close to highways and heavily traveled truck routes, they can’t escape it. Pollution of nearly any kind isn’t good for your body, but particulate emissions can be the most damaging, causing asthma and other breathing problems.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Now, a new study may give pregnant women a reason to worry, too. Here’s Sarah Boseley, reporting for The Guardian:

Support Provided ByLearn More

Low birthweight in babies is a concern, because it often predicts poorer health as children and later as adults. A small head circumference could indicate problems with neurodevelopment.

The research pooled the results of studies from 12 countries in Europe, involving more than 74,000 women who gave birth between 1994 and 2011, living in a range of different settings, from inner-city to semi rural.

Another related study is following 13,000 families to see what other variables may affect birthweight, allowing researchers to isolate the impact of pollution. It isn’t good.

Particulate pollution can be damaging to respiratory health and may also reduce birthweight.

Researchers discovered an unsettling correlation. As particulate pollution increased by 5 micrograms per cubic meter, the risk of a low birthweight increased by 18% and head circumference decreased significantly. These measurements are predictors of health later in life and neural development, respectively. Babies with higher birthweight and larger heads tend to be healthier and their brains more developed.

In recent decades, public health campaigns have encouraged women to quit smoking and abstain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy to improve the health of their babies, with great success. But for many women, air pollution is an unavoidable fact of life, frequently influenced by socioeconomic factors.

Again, Bradford for The Guardian:

[Dr. John] Wright said the study made the case for regulatory intervention. “You can stop smoking and drink less alcohol and get more physical exercise. Pregnant women do this really well. But for air pollution there is nothing much you can do.”

Photo credit: Pöllö/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY)

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.