Why Higher Air Pollution Is Bad News for Newborn Health

Poor air quality can affect babies before they’re even born.

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It’s already well studied that children living in high-polluted areas are more likely to develop asthma; however, newer studies are showing just how early air pollution can harm human health. In particular, disparities in health could show up at the moment of childbirth.

Air Pollution + Human Health

One of the things posing a risk to lung health is microparticles: teensy, tiny particles that you can’t see, but you can breathe in. These particles are so small that your nose and airways can’t filter them out, so they end up in your lungs and potentially your bloodstream.

These tiny chemicals can harm lung function, increase the risk of asthma, cause inflammation in the lungs, and increase the risk of stroke or heart attack, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).

These microparticles are especially harmful to children. A major portion of the air sacs in the lungs develop after birth, according to ALA, so childhood is a vulnerable time for lung health. In fact, a 2018 study including nearly eight million children found that exposure to particulate matter increased the risk of developing asthma, as well as hospitalizations due to asthma.

Air Pollution Risk to Newborns

The risk to human health doesn’t just start after birth, however. A July 2019 study by the National Institutes of Health has revealed that babies born to women in high-pollution areas are more likely to be admitted to the newborn intensive care unit, commonly called “NICU.”

The study compared data of NICU admissions to the air quality data in the area of birth during the week prior to delivery. Exposure to different types of pollution led to different levels of risk, but the worst was exposure to volatile organic compounds (emissions from things like fuel, paint, and disinfectants). Exposure to this type of pollution prior to delivery led to a 147 percent (!!) increase in NICU admission risk.

While researchers don’t know exactly what causes this link, they theorize that pollutants cause inflammation that harms blood vessel growth in the placenta, which deprives the fetus of necessary oxygen and nutrients. This can result in preterm birth, a common cause of NICU admission.

The new study strengthens recommendations for pregnant women to minimize their time outdoors when air quality is poor. Additionally, it highlights the need for states and communities to curb air pollution—not just for the environment, but also for the health of future generations. (Here are other ways climate change can affect human health.)