It doesn't need to be said, but pregnancy is a 24-hour job where you're always thinking about the food you eat, the liquids you drink, the way your body moves, the sleep you need... and the very air you breathe. So it's understandable why this new study concerning pollution has left some expecting parents unnerved. Apparently, researchers recently discovered air pollution particles can reach the placenta during pregnancy, which might explain why past research has linked pollution to premature births and low birth weights.
The Hasselt University in Belgium released the results of a small study Tuesday, which was conducted by its researchers and published in Nature Communications. Scientists involved in the study looked at 10 placentas donated by mothers who lived near major roads and 10 who lived in areas with less traffic to find out whether air pollution particles were present. Researchers focused on the placenta because it acts as a temporary protective barrier between a pregnant person and the growing fetus, helping to nourish the baby while simultaneously blocking any unwanted substances found in the mother's bloodstream, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Researchers found that black carbon or "soot," which is a type of particle found in air pollutants, was found on the fetus' side of the placentas of mothers who lived in higher traffic areas, according to The BBC. It seems that the particles from the air pollution were able to reach the fetus through mother's lungs all the way to the placenta, according to The Los Angeles Times.
This is the first study of its kind to find direct evidence that particles can permeate the placenta, although past research suggested this was a possibility, according to Nature Communications. Researchers told The Hill that this discovery was "a potential mechanism explaining the detrimental health effects of pollution from early life onwards,” despite the fact that the test group was relatively small.
Of course, every study has limitations. One scientist who was not involved with the study, Dr. Yoel Sadovsky of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told the Associated Press there's no proof in this research that the soot was able to reach the fetus from the placenta. Furthermore, Dr. Sadovsky noted this study did not link soot in the placenta to negative side effects in the fetus, which is crucial. But he did admit “just finding it at the placenta is important."
"The next question would be how much of these black carbon particles need to be there to cause damage," Dr. Sadovsky added.
Answering this question is important because it could explain why pollution has been linked to premature births and low birth weights.
It has been proven, however, the negative consequences pollution can have on infants and young children. A 2017 report from UNICEF outlined how toxic air can damage an infant's brain tissue, according to CNN, while some researchers have suggested premature births are related to air pollution. Air-pollution exposure has also been attributed to increased NICU stays, a study published in July claimed.
Although a lot more research needs to be done regarding whether air pollution particles can reach the fetus, it's great to see scientists taking the relationship between air pollution and pregnancy seriously. As past research has found, this link has too many risks to be ignored.