Turns Out Air Pollution Can Even Reach... Your Placenta?!

Sep 17, 2018 at 1:08 p.m. ET
pregnant woman and son coughing air pollution
Image: Metamorworks/Getty Images.

Most pregnant people will do anything they can to ensure their unborn child's health, right? They exercise, they avoid hot dogs and sushi, they take vitamins, and they replace margaritas with matcha (in moderation). But one thing expectant parents have little control over? The air they breathe. And — you guessed it — this may be cause for concern according to a new study.

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In fact, researchers for the European Lung Foundation, which conducted the study, found that air pollution has the ability to pass through a pregnant person's lungs and into the placenta.

Of course, according to Dr. Lisa Miyashita, one of the study's authors, the effects of air pollution on fetal development have been known for some time. "We've known for a while that air pollution affects [fetal] development and can continue to affect babies after birth and throughout their lives." However, what Miyashita and fellow researcher Dr. Norrice Liu wanted to find out was "if these effects could be due to pollution particles moving from the mother's lungs to the placenta."

"Until now, there has been very little evidence that inhaled particles get into the blood from the lung," Miyashita said in a statement.

But this study changed all that. In fact, it provided evidence that inhaled pollution particles can indeed move from the lungs into the placenta.

It's worth noting that the study was very small in scale. Researchers worked with only five healthy pregnant women, all from London. After delivery, researchers analyzed the placentas of these women and, using an optical microscope, they found 72 dark particles among 3,500 cells, which researchers determined to be carbon particles. 

Of course, that may not sound like much — 72 in 3,500 — however, these particles should not be present in the placenta at all. At all. And according to the researchers, the presence of these particles proves environmental contaminants can absolutely affect a mothers' pregnancy.

"It is very evident to us they are black sooty particles," explained Miyashita.

That said, it is still unclear whether these particles can then pass from the placenta to the fetus. "We do not know whether the particles we found could also move across into the [fetus], but our evidence suggests that this is indeed possible. We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby's body to have an adverse effect, because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact" on the fetus.

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So how can we deal with this? Professor Mina Gaga, president of the European Respiratory Society and medical director and head of the respiratory department of Athens Chest Hospital in Greece, advises implementing stricter policies — now. "We need stricter policies for cleaner air to reduce the impact of pollution on health worldwide because we are already seeing a new population of young adults with health issues."

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