Toxic air pollution particles found in lungs of unborn babies


Babies have air pollution particles in their lungs even before they take their first breath, researchers have found.

Although earlier studies had detected soot particles in the placenta of expectant mothers, it was unknown if the pollution could actually pass through to foetuses.

Scientists at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and Hasselt University, Belgium studied 14 foetuses which were aborted between weeks seven and 20 of normal progressing pregnancies.

They found that all already had black carbon particles in their placenta, liver, lung and brain, with the pollution present even by the first trimester.

Developing organs are particularly vulnerable, and the findings could help explain why exposure to pollution during pregnancy is linked to detrimental health effects in children, such as low-birth weight and asthma.

The team also examined 60 mother and newborn pairs and also found black carbon particles in maternal blood, cord blood and placenta.

Experts said the results were “very worrying”.

Long-term health effects

Paul Fowler, Professor in Translational Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, said: “We all worried that if nanoparticles were getting into the foetus, then they might be directly affecting its development in the womb.

“What we have shown for the first time is that black carbon air pollution nanoparticles not only get into the first and second trimester placenta but then also find their way into the organs of the developing foetus, including the liver and lungs.

“What is even more worrying is that these black carbon particles also get into the developing human brain. This means that it is possible for these nanoparticles to directly interact with control systems within human foetal organs and cells.”

Black carbon is a sooty black material released into the air from internal combustion engines, coal-fired power plants, and other sources that burn fossil fuel.

Manmade air pollution is already known to cause long-term health effects such as heart disease and lung cancer and is thought to be responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths in Britain each year.

But the new study suggests that it could also be having an impact early in life.

‘Disturbed brain development’

Professor Tim Nawrot, of Hasselt University, said: “We know that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and infancy has been linked with stillbirth, preterm birth, low weight babies and disturbed brain development, with consequences persisting throughout life.”

“We show in this study that the number of black carbon particles that get into the mother is passed on proportionally to the placenta and into the baby.

“This means that air quality regulation should recognise this transfer during gestation and act to protect the most susceptible stages of human development.”

The research was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Healthy.