Pregnant woman looking at her baby sonography

Air pollution particles can reach babies in the womb, study finds

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Researchers have found that unborn babies have air pollution particles in their developing lungs and other vital organs as early as the first trimester of pregnancy.

The team from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and Hasselt University, Belgium, said their findings were “especially concerning” because key organ development occurs when foetuses are growing in the uterus.

Researchers examined 60 mothers and their babies in Aberdeen and the Grampian region in Scotland. They also analysed tissue samples from 36 aborted foetuses between seven and 20 weeks of gestation.

The team found evidence of “black carbon particles” – also known as soot particles – in umbilical cord blood, which shows that the particles can cross the placenta. Such soot particles were present in all mothers and newborns.

According to the researchers, the level of particles found was linked to the amount of air pollution the mother was exposed to during pregnancy.

The research team also found such particles in the livers, lungs and brains of the aborted foetuses. They found black carbon particles in all tissue samples analysed.

The scientists warned they could see the particles in foetuses as early as the first trimester of pregnancy. It is also the first time researchers have shown black carbon nanoparticles in developing foetuses.

Black carbon is one of the many particles and gases that are emitted when industry burns diesel, coal and other biomass fuels. It is also part of the fine particulate air pollution known as PM2.5.

“We found that maternally inhaled carbonaceous air pollution particles can cross the placenta and then translocate into human foetal organs during gestation,” the authors wrote in the journal Lancet Planetary Health. “These findings are especially concerning because this window of exposure is key to organ development.”

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

The team have shown 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,” Nawrot said.

Professor Paul Fowler, from the University of Aberdeen, added: “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 interact with control systems within human foetal organs and cells.”

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