When I was pregnant with my twins, the last thing I needed was more to worry about. Anxious by nature, I was already worried about a lot: whether I was eating the right foods for my babies, whether we’d figure out the whole work + childcare situation, whether I’d be able to breastfeed, whether I’d be good at parenthood at all. A well-meaning friend offered the following words of comfort after I’d shared my concerns with her:
“Welcome to motherhood. You’re going to be worried about your kids for the rest of your life.”
Now, expectant parents can add another worry to an already-anxious season of life: the possibility that their unborn babies may be impacted by air pollution before they even take their first breaths.
Scientists have known for some time that prenatal exposure to air pollution is linked to adverse birth outcomes, including pregnancy loss, low birth weight, and premature births. A new study from researchers in Scotland may help us understand more about how these harmful outcomes occur. Published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, the research found evidence of toxic black carbon particles—often called soot—in cord blood and placenta tissue in pregnant mothers. Perhaps even more troublingly, the researchers also found evidence of black carbon particles in the developing organs of the mothers’ unborn fetuses, including their livers, lungs, and brains.
Soot consists of tiny particles of air pollution that are generated by the combustion of fossil fuels for energy. The main sources of soot include diesel engines, vehicle tailpipes, coal plants, oil refineries, and fires. Fossil fuel-derived air pollution is widely recognized to be profoundly harmful to human health: it is one of the leading causes of premature mortality, responsible for 1 in 5 deaths around the world. Air pollution is linked to cardiovascular damage, lung damage, adverse mental health impacts, disrupted fertility, and more; a 2019 review found that air pollution may damage every organ in the human body. Babies and children, whose little lungs are still developing, are especially vulnerable to the impacts of breathing polluted air.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 99% of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds WHO’s guidelines for safety. And here in the United States, the 2022 State of the Air Report found that 40% of Americans are living in places with failing grades for air pollution. The burden of air pollution isn’t distributed evenly; communities of color and people experiencing poverty are especially at risk for breathing unhealthy air, as are children, older adults, people with pre-existing conditions, and people who are pregnant.
As anxious parents-to-be are well aware, the prenatal period is critical for babies’ long-term development, and exposure to pollution before birth may have lifelong impacts. This makes the finding of toxic pollution particles in the developing organs of fetuses especially concerning.
This fall, EPA will be reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particle pollution to decide whether or not the standards should be strengthened. In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Tim Nawrot, one of the new study’s co-authors, emphasized the importance of robust air quality regulation to address the health harms of air pollution for the littlest lungs: “Air quality regulation should recognize this [air pollution] transfer during gestation and act to protect the most susceptible stages of human development.” Stronger air pollution standards, the new research suggests, could improve babies’ health before they are even born.
Entering parenthood may well involve inevitable worry, but concern that babies will be affected by toxic air pollution shouldn’t be one of these worries. Families deserve stronger air pollution standards to protect the lungs of the people we love the most.