Revealed: Babies have air pollution particles in their lungs while they’re still in the WOMB
- Air pollution particles can reach babies in the womb, a landmark study suggests
- Pollutants from traffic fumes can cross the placenta and get into baby’s organs
- Experts say findings are ‘concerning’ as organ development occurs in the uterus
Unborn babies have air pollution particles in their developing lungs and other vital organs as early as the first trimester, a landmark study has found.
Pollutants from traffic fumes can pass through the mother’s bloodstream, into the placenta through to the baby’s developing organs within the first 12 weeks.
Experts believe it could mean pregnant women living in the most polluted parts of the country are at greater risk of stillbirth and babies born with health problems.
Scientists at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and Hasselt University, Belgium, studied air pollution nanoparticles, called black carbon — or soot particles — to determine if they could reach the foetus.
For the first time, they discovered evidence the pollutants crossed into the developing organs including the liver, lungs, and brain.
They found dangerous nanoparticles — from exhaust fumes and fossil fuels — crossed the placenta into the foetus in the womb as early as three months into pregnancy.
The more air pollution the mothers were exposed to, the greater the level of black carbon nanoparticles found in the baby, according to the findings published in Lancet Planetary Health.
Pollutants from traffic fumes can pass through the mother’s bloodstream, into the placenta through to the baby’s developing organs within the first 12 weeks
Can pollution reach your baby in the womb?
Research shows that particles of pollution can reach the baby in the womb through the placenta.
The highest levels of particles were found in mothers who lived closest to busy roads during pregnancy.
Some small studies have shown an association between air pollution and pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight.
However, there are many things that increase the risk of these complications and these studies did not prove that air pollution was a direct cause.
More research is needed to better understand the impact of pollution on pregnancy.
All women are exposed to particles of pollution and it is impossible to avoid them completely.
Pregnant women are advised to try not to worry too much and focus on living a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Professor Tim Nawrot, of the University of Aberdeen said: ‘We know that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and infancy has been linked with stillbirth, preterm birth, low weight babies and disturbed brain development, with consequences persisting throughout life.
‘We show in this study that the number of black carbon particles that get into the mother are passed on proportionally to the placenta and into the baby.
‘This means that air quality regulation should recognise this transfer during gestation and act to protect the most susceptible stages of human development.’
Black carbon is a sooty black material released into the air from internal combustion engines, coal-fired power plants, and other sources that burn fossil fuel.
It is a major component of particulate matter, an air pollutant linked to serious health problems including heart disease, respiratory infections and lung cancer.
Previous research into babies found exposure in the womb increased risk of low birth weight and preterm birth.
Black carbon nanoparticles had been found to get into the placenta, but there was no solid evidence that these particles then entered the foetus until now.
The findings also suggest that public health measures are urgently required to minimise pregnant mothers’ exposure to air pollution.
Co-author, Professor Paul Fowler, said: ‘We all worried that if nanoparticles were getting into the foetus, then they might be directly affecting its development in the womb.
‘What we have shown for the first time is that black carbon air pollution nanoparticles not only get into the first and second trimester placenta, but then also find their way into the organs of the developing foetus, including the liver and lungs.
‘What is even more worrying is that these black carbon particles also get into the developing human brain. This means that it is possible for these nanoparticles to directly interact with control systems within human foetal organs and cells.’