New study says toxic air pollution particles can enter fetus’s brain, lungs, liver

When The Hollies sang, “The Air That I Breathe,” they weren’t referring to toxic air pollution particles. But unfortunately that’s what many expectant mothers may be breathing these days, given how much pollution there is in the air. And a new study just published in The Lancet Planetary Health showed how such particles can cross the placenta and end up in the livers, lungs and brains of fetuses. This is clearly not a good development for fetuses as exposure to such particles so early could potentially affect the development of their organs.

The study was enlightening in more ways than one. He used an illumination method to check for black carbon particles in various blood and tissue samples from mothers and fetuses. A team from Hasselt University in Hasselt, Belgium (Eva Bongaerts, MSc, Hannelore Bové, PhD, Marcel Ameloot, PhD and Tim S Nawrot, PhD), the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, UK (Laetitia L Lecante, PhD and Paul Oi A Fowler, PhD) and KU Leuven in Leuven, Belgium (Maarten BJ Roeffaers, PhD) conducted this two-part study.

The first part of the study found evidence of black carbon particles in cord blood samples from 60 randomly selected mother-newborn pairs who were part of the ENVIRONAGE (Environmental Effects on Aging in Early Life) birth cohort of mothers from Belgium. This showed that such particles could cross the placenta and enter the fetal circulatory system. In fact, the amount of particles found was closely related to how much black carbon exposure the mother had during pregnancy. In case you were wondering, the research team excluded from the study those mothers who had a history of smoking.

The second part of the study involved analyzing tissue samples from 36 fetuses aged seven to 20 weeks’ gestation from the SAFeR (Scottish Advanced Fetus Research) cohort of terminated pregnancies in Aberdeen and the Grampian region of the UK. The analysis found carbon black particles in the livers and lungs of all 36 fetuses and in the brains of 14. Again, these were fetuses still developing in otherwise normal pregnancies. Incidentally, the researchers used measurements of cotinine concentrations to ensure that the mothers were non-smokers.

This is obviously not good news. The Troggs and Wet, Wet, Wet might have sung ‘Love Is All Around’. But what is really everywhere is air pollution. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 99% of the world’s population currently breathes air that exceeds WHO guideline limits and has high levels of pollutants. That means, unless you’re in the one percent, chances are you’re breathing in pollutants almost every day. A National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) website summarizes studies that have shown how air pollution is linked to a wide range of health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, obesity and reproductive, neurological and immune system disorders. Other studies have shown links between mothers exposed to particulate air pollution during pregnancy and problems during pregnancy, worse birth outcomes and molecular alterations in the newborn.

Thus, air pollution can affect not only your health but also potentially the health of your unborn children. If you believe that children are our future, then this does not bode well for our future, given that our world is not doing nearly enough to reduce air pollution. Until our society “ventilates” on the pollution reduction side, we could have quite a growing problem on our hands.

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