Study: Traffic Pollution Could be a Risk While Pregnant

A new study shows that exposure to high levels of traffic air pollution during pregnancy can negatively affect the child’s lungs.

The study found that children born to mothers exposed to high levels of pollution during pregnancy are 22 percent more likely to have impaired lung function. Mothers who were exposed to high levels of nitrogen dioxide are 30 percent more likely to have lung damage. The lung damage was worst among poorer children and children with allergies. The findings of the study strongly suggest—but do not necessarily prove—that exposure to traffic pollutants during pregnancy can damage the child’s lungs.

The study was conducted by testing 1,295 mothers’ exposure to traffic air pollutants nitrogen dioxide and benzene during the second trimester of pregnancy, then testing their children’s lung function at age 4.

“Public policies to reduce exposure to traffic-related air pollution may avoid harmful effects on lung development and function with substantial public health benefits,” said the study researchers in a journal news release. The study authors argue that limiting exposure to traffic pollutants during pregnancy and in the early months of the child’s life can decrease the risk of lung damage.

Professor Peter Sly, deputy director of the executive of the Queensland Children’s Medical Research Institute wrote an editorial in support of traffic-related policy changes.

“Policy makers need to heed data such as those presented by (head researcher) Morales et al as limiting exposure to traffic-related pollution during fetal development and early postnatal life is one way that the burden of respiratory disease can be decreased,” Sly wrote.

Not all air pollution has the capacity to affect a child’s lung development. However, the noxious chemicals found in car exhaust are particularly harmful if exposed at a high level. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the International Agency for Research on Cancer recently classified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen and gasoline exhaust as a possible carcinogen. Traffic exhaust contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and toxic air contaminants like benzene, formaldehyde, butadiene, and nitroarenes. It also contains small particles of metal, elemental carbon, organic carbon, and sulphate. Many of these materials have been linked to cancer and other carcinogens.

Existing research has already highlighted the negative effects of air pollutants on the lungs of school-age children, but this study sheds new light on the connection between a mother’s exposure to pollution and child health. The study did not present a link between air pollution exposure in the first year of life and decreased lung function at age 4.

The AirNow Air Quality Index can help expectant mothers keep track of the air quality in their area on certain days.