D: Learn how exposure to air pollution during pregnancy affects your developing fetus, and how expectant mother can limit exposure.
Toxic chemicals from car exhaust and air pollution are a common source of prenatal exposure. More than 30 years ago, a study by Frederica Perera, then director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University, found substantial levels of these chemicals (referred to as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs) in the cord blood of every woman who had just delivered a baby.
Analysis of this cord blood from the infants showed that 40% of the babies had sustained subtle DNA damage from these pollutants. It also seemed to have an effect on how these children functioned later on. Those exposed to prenatally high levels of PAHs were more than twice as likely to be cognitively delayed at age three, scoring lower on an assessment that is used to predict school performance. At age five, these same children scored lower on IQ tests than those with less exposure. PAH exposure has also been linked to an increased risk of cancer. (Paul, 2010)
The good news is that since this study, cleaner vehicle technology has resulted in improvements to air quality, which means less fetal exposure. The bad news is that pregnant women continue to be exposed to these harmful chemicals, many of them at rates which pose a substantial hazard.
How these chemicals affect your baby
PAHs happen to bind with a fetuses DNA, creating the type of genetic damage described by Perera. This pretty much opens the door for a variety of health problems later, since genetic abnormalities can influence any aspect of one’s health. In addition to this, PAH can hinder a fetus’s ability to get the oxygen and vital nutrients they need by occupying receptors in the placenta. They also trigger the release of metabolism-altering enzymes, alter levels of key growth hormones, and confuse the brain into destroying essential synapses.
Those living in inner cities or near coal-fired power plants are especially at risk, but it doesn’t take much to pose a hazard. A recent study at Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that even low levels of traffic-related pollution led to an increase in the numbers of babies born who were small for their gestational age. (Denworth, 2013)
All told, PAHs have been linked to a number of harmful effects. Like many chemicals, air pollution can disrupt the endocrine and nervous systems, leading to a long list of potential health effects. They contribute to higher rates of asthma and allergies. Sudden infant death syndrome, reduced birthweight, a vulnerability towards respiratory infections, and pediatric cancer are also among the list of wonderful things linked to PAH exposure. As are autism, mental impairments, and behavioral issues.
Forty-two percent of Americans live in counties where levels of ground level ozone and particulate matter make the air harmful to breathe, according to data from the American Lung Association. (To check the quality of the air where you live, go to stateoftheair.org.) Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do about this risk, unless you’re skilled enough to hold your breath for the next 9 months, which doesn’t sound very healthy for the baby either. However, there are a few simple things you can do:
Whenever driving in traffic or on busy highways, keep your windows closed.
Avoid heavy exercise on days when the pollution advisory is high.
Spend as much time in the country as possible, away from major sources of air pollution.
Build a spaceship, launch it into space, and go find another planet to colonize that isn’t so polluted yet.