Pollution linked to low birth weight
Pregnant women who are exposed to even low levels of air pollution are at an increased risk of giving birth at term to low birthweight babies, according to a large-scale study.
Traffic density and air pollutants - in particular fine particulates found in traffic fumes and industrial air pollutants - increased the risk of low birthweight and reduced average head circumference of babies born at term, research has shown.
The study, using data from data on 74,000 pregnant women in 12 European countries gathered between 1994 and 2011 was published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.
It estimated concentrations in the air of nitrogen oxides and fine particulates at home addresses as well as recording traffic density on the nearest road and total traffic load on all major roads within 100 metres of the residence.
Researchers estimated that for every increase of five micrograms per cubic metre in exposure to fine particulate matter during pregnancy the risk of low birthweight at term rose by 18%.
This increased risk remained at levels below the existing European Union annual air quality limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
The average exposure to fine particulate matter during pregnancy in those studied ranged from less than 10 micrograms to nearly 30 micrograms per cubic metre.
The study authors estimated that if levels of fine particulates were reduced to 10 micrograms per cubic metre - the World Health Organisation annual average air quality guideline value - 22% of cases of low birthweight among term deliveries could be prevented.
Low birthweight for a baby born at term was classified as less than 2.5kg. The study took into account other factors such as maternal smoking, age, weight and education.
Lead author Dr Marie Pedersen, from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, said: “Our findings suggest that a substantial proportion of cases of low birthweight at term could be prevented in Europe if urban air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter, was reduced.
“The widespread exposure of pregnant women worldwide to urban ambient air pollution at similar or even higher concentrations than those assessed in our study provides a clear message to policy makers to improve the quality of the air we all share.”
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