Black carbon air pollution particles found in unborn babies

Traces of toxic materials linked to pollutants discovered in lungs, livers and brains of foetuses that have yet to take their first breath.

A ‘groundbreaking’ discovery with ‘very worrying’ implications has been made by a team of researchers at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and Hasselt University, Belgium, after examining the impact of dirty air on unborn children. Simply put, thousands of black carbon particles have been found in body tissue, impacting a number of vital organs. 

person in brown long sleeve shirt holding black book

The particulate matter has been breathed in by mothers during gestation periods, and then absorbed by the foetuses as they continue to develop. It has already been understood that air pollution molecules are absorbed into the placenta in this way, but this is the first time clear evidence has shown what happens next. 

Alarmingly, research involved non-smoking mothers living in areas of Scotland and Belgium that record relatively low levels of air pollution, suggesting a similar study looking at those living in notorious pollution hotspots could yield even higher readings for particles. Successive studies have shown just how vulnerable children are to air pollution, with brain development, digestive and cardiovascular systems effected. Based on this, it’s possible that pollution could have an even more significant impact on foetuses which are still forming, potentially causing lifelong health consequences. 

Professor Tim Nawrot, of Hasselt University, said: “We know that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and infancy has been linked with still birth, 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 are 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,’ he continued.

Image: Jonathan Sanchez




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1 year ago

Thank you. it is worrying. But does the study tell us where the soot particles are thought to come from? Traffic, factories, combustion, homemade or brought on the wind from abroad? It ought to be important to work out where from if we seriously want to reduce this exposure and ingestion. Does the study specify the exact chemical nature of these particles because that might hlep identify the origin? I see you say the mohters in the study live somewhere with relatively low levels of air pollution but can we be sure that is true? Perhaps the low levels are about outside air but the damaging polluiton exposure happens indoors? Did the study ask the mothers about chemicals they use around the home, sprays,candles, open fires, whether they drive diesel cars and so on? Sounds like we need to track down the sources. And think how much worse this must be in cities where the air pollution particles are known to be extremely high. Air quality regulation sounds good but how does that translate into protecting the public at the everyday level? Are there really enough local authority air quality sensors in our towns and villages? I haven’t seen any.

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