New research indicates that if women are exposed to air pollution just prior to conception, or during the first month of pregnancy, they face an increased risk of their children being born with birth defects, such as cleft lip, palate, or abnormal hearts.
The increased risk may be modest; however, the potential impact on a population basis is significant as all pregnant women have some amount of exposure. Emily DeFranco, DO, a physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and senior author of the study, said in a statement:
“The most susceptible time of exposure appears to be the one month before and after conception.
“Public health efforts should continue to highlight the importance of minimizing population-level exposure to harmful particulate matter in the air.”
Using birth certificate data from the Ohio Department of Health and particulate matter data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 57 monitoring stations throughout Ohio, the researchers were able to link the geographic coordinates of the mother’s residence for each birth with the nearest monitoring station.
By linking both the geographic coordinates and the nearest monitoring station the study was able to calculate average exposures. The team then estimated the relationship between abnormalities at birth and the mother’s exposure to increased levels of fine particulate matter in the air during her pregnancy.
The study, which was published in The Journal of Pediatrics, focused on fine particulate matter because of its significant health hazard.
Fine particulate matter consists of a mixture of extremely tiny particles and liquid droplets. Once they are traveling through the air they are easily inhaled. The tiny particles are then deposited deep into the lower airways and air sacs within our lungs, and then enter the circulatory system.
Fine particulate matter can negatively affect many aspects of a person’s health, with birth defects affecting three percent of all births in the United States. DeFranco concedes that there are inherent limitations of observational studies; however, it provides a good foundation on which studies can build.
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