For years now, researchers have studied how air pollution impacts pregnancy, the potential adverse effects of air pollution on pregnant women as well as their babies, and the prognosis looks more serious with every finding.
Here’s all you need to know about air quality, where pollution comes from, and how you can avoid breathing unhealthy air while carrying your baby.
What is Air Pollution?
Air pollution comes in many forms. Typically, polluted air is comprised of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, vehicle exhaust, building emissions, second-hand smoke, dust, and chemicals. You can be exposed to air pollution whether you’re in the country or a major city.
Common symptoms of prolonged air pollution exposure include:
- Eye and sinus irritation
- Advanced respiratory diseases like bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema
- Chronic fatigue
- Decreased lung capacity and shortness of breath
- Damage to lungs and heart
Although air pollution isn’t healthy for any living creature, it has the most severe impact on pregnant women, children, babies, those with respiratory problems, and the elderly.
Potential Dangers of Being Exposed to Air Pollution During Pregnancy
Research is always uncovering more serious data about what polluted air can do to pregnant women and their babies.
Here are some of the sobering consequences you may need to watch out for.
- Low Birth Weight – The ideal pregnancy delivers six to nine-pound babies at 38–40 weeks. Babies under five pounds eight ounces are considered “low birth weight.” On average, one in every 12 babies in America is born underweight—for a variety of reasons—but exposure to air pollution while pregnant is speculated to cause this complication.
An interesting study in Beijing—one of the world’s worst cities for air pollution—made strides in connecting air pollution to low birth weight. Researchers studied women who were pregnant during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a two-month span when the city was mandated to lower emissions and improve air quality. The study found that women who were in their eighth month of pregnancy during the Olympics (compared to women who delivered during the same calendar months years prior) delivered babies who were 0.8 ounces heavier. It’s still unknown which trimester, month, or week is most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, but the study is nevertheless compelling.
- Preterm Birth – According to a study by The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York, nearly three million babies are born prematurely each year because of air pollution. That means 18 percent of all annual preterm births have been linked to exposure to particulate matter pollution. Children born before term have a significant risk of neurological disorders and permanent physical disabilities. While premature birth can happen to anyone for many reasons, air pollution is one you should try to avoid.
- Autism – An alarming Harvard study revealed that women exposed to high particulate matter pollution during their third trimesters were twice as likely to deliver a child with autism—especially if they lived near a highway where particulate matter is highest. It’s important to note that this study found that women exposed to the same dangerous levels of the particulate matter earlier in pregnancy didn’t experience an elevated risk of having a child with autism.
- Asthma – Air pollution exacerbates asthma. In pregnant women, this can be dangerous because asthma can cause preeclampsia, a condition that causes elevated blood pressure and decreased function of the liver and kidneys. When asthma is well-managed, you and your baby should be fine. However, untreated asthma can cause your baby to suffer from lack of oxygen, leading to poor growth, premature birth, and low birth weight. Research has also found that exposure to air pollution can increase your baby’s chances of developing asthma later in life because particulate matter pollution breaches the placenta.
- Fertility Problems – If you plan on starting or expanding a family, you may need to be careful with the air you breathe. Multiple studies have determined air pollution contributes to lower fertility rates in men and women. Some research also links air pollution to miscarriages.
Ways to Protect Yourself From Air Pollution While Pregnant
It’s impossible to avoid every potential threat to your health and that of your baby, but there is a lot you can do to decrease your exposure to air pollution.
- Read the Air Quality Index (AQI) – In 2014, the World Health Organization determined that 92 percent of the world’s population lived in regions where air quality is unsafe. Even if the air looks clear, it might be contaminated. Make it a habit of looking up your zip code’s air quality index report each day. It’ll tell you particulate pollution levels and whether you should be concerned.
- Get an Air Purifier – Outdoor air pollution isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. According to the EPA, Americans spend 90 percent of their lives indoors where pollutants are two to five times higher than outdoors. Solve this problem by purchasing air purifiers for your home. These devices remove everything from smoke to allergens to mold and germs from your air—helping you and your baby grow in a healthier environment.
- Protect Your Air – Anytime you cook, use hair spray, paint, or have a fire, you introduce contaminants to your household air. Create a healthy environment by using natural household cleaners, using your vent hood when cooking, doing routine checks for mold, and using carbon monoxide detectors.
- Stay Inside – Your skin is your largest organ—absorbing 60–100 percent of whatever it comes into contact with. Pregnant women share everything with their babies; what you eat, drink, breathe, and come in touch with impacts your fetus. Even if you’re wearing a gas mask, your skin will be affected by outdoor air pollution like particulate matter. Example: If the forecast is telling you to watch for outdoor air pollution, stay indoors with your air purifiers on.
- Get Air-Purifying Plants – Plants can naturally filter your air and help you and your growing baby breathe healthier air. Certain varieties of the spider and snake plants remove volatile organic compounds from the air and replace carbon dioxide with fresh/clean oxygen. Get one plant for every 100 square feet to maintain cleaner air.
Pregnancy is a delicate balance. While many things can influence the health of you and your baby, air pollution is something you can learn to avoid. Use these tips to keep your newborn and loved ones safe.
Compiled using information from the following sources:
1. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Reducing Ozone Pollution Makes Breathing Easier.
2. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution.
3. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Pollution.
4. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) Pollution.
5. World Health Organization (WHO), Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health.
6. March of Dimes, Low Birthweight.
7. Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), Air Pollution and Birth Weight: New Clues about a Potential Critical Window of Exposure.
8. Science Daily, Outdoor air pollution tied to millions of preterm births.
9. Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), Autism Spectrum Disorder and Particulate Matter Air Pollution before, during, and after Pregnancy: A Nested Case–Control Analysis within the Nurses’ Health Study II Cohort
10. March of Dimes, Asthma during pregnancy.
11. Asthma UK, Is pollution affecting your asthma? Find out how to manage this common asthma trigger.
12. American Society for Reproductive Medicine, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Outdoor air pollution and human infertility: a systematic review.
13. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), AirNow, Air Quality Index (AQI) Basics.
14. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), EPA’s Report on the Environment: Indoor Air Quality
15. Air Purifiers America: How to Find the Best Air Purifier
16. Brown et al. The role of skin absorption as a route of exposure for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in drinking water. Am J Public Health. 1984 May; 74(5): 479–484.
17. Greatist: 9 Air-Cleaning Houseplants That Are Almost Impossible to Kill
18. The Old Farmers Almanac: CLEAN HOUSE WITH TROPICAL PLANTS