Pregnant women’s exposure to air pollution can affect the way the baby responds to stress

New research has shown that a mother’s exposure to particulate matter during pregnancy is associated with reduced cardiac response to stress in 6-month-old infants. 

The researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, studied 237 Boston-based mothers and their children and used satellite data and air pollution monitors to determine the level of particulate air pollution that the mothers were exposed to during their pregnancy.

The levels of air pollution observed were similar to levels observed amongst the general U.S. population.

By studying the baby’s heart rate and respiration at aged 6 months, the researchers found that the higher the level of the mother’s exposure to air pollution during the pregnancy, the decreased heart rate variability when the baby was responding to a stressful situation.

According to the researchers, variability in heart rate response to stressful experiences is essential for maintaining optimal functioning of cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems.

It is also central to emotional well-being and the ability to cope with stress.

The observed pattern of decreased heart rate variability is a known risk factor for later-life mental and physical health problems conditions such as heart disease, asthma, allergies, and mood or behavioural disorders.

Senior author Rosalind Wright, Professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine and Public Health said: ‘These findings, in combination with increasing worldwide exposure to particulate air pollution, highlight the importance of examining early life exposure to air pollution in relation to negative medical development and psychological outcomes.’

‘A critical step in identifying children at risk for costly chronic disorders is identifying exposures that lead to early vulnerability.’

The study’s first author, Whitney Cowell said: ‘Identifying exposures that disrupt key processes such as heart response will lead to prevention strategies in early life when they can have the greatest impact.’

‘Specifically, these findings support individual-level and policy-level action to reduce exposure to particulate matter air pollution during pregnancy.’

In related news, a major study has linked air pollution to an up to 50% increased risk of death in babies in the UK.

The European Lung Foundation conducted a study that looked at 8 million births in the UK between 2001 and 2012, investigating the link between pollution exposure and death rates.

The study found that exposure to three air pollutants, particulate matter (PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) are all associated with a 20-50% increase risk of death for babies who are born in the most polluted areas of the UK when compared with those born in the least polluted areas.

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