Last updated on Jan 21st, 2021 at 03:42 pm

Research article: The Lancet

Exposure to common air pollutants and traffic during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of restricted foetal growth. This is evident even at levels well below those stipulated in current European Union (EU) air-quality directives, according to one of the largest studies of its kind, published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

â??Our findings suggest that a substantial proportion of cases of low birthweight babies at term could be prevented in Europe if urban air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter, was reduced,â? explains Dr Marie Pedersen from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, Spain.

European doctors research impact of pollution

Pedersen was part of a team of European researchers who assessed the impact of exposure to low levels of air pollution during pregnancy on birthweight at term. This exposure has also been linked to respiratory problems in childhood, as well as other diseases later in life.

Using data from the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE, coordinated by the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands), the investigators pooled data from 14 cohort studies in 12 European countries involving over 74 000 women who had singleton babies between February 1994 and June 2011.

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Air pollution concentrations of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter were estimated at their home addresses using land-use regression models. Traffic density on the nearest road and total traffic load on all major roads within 100 metres of each residence were also recorded.

All air pollutants, particularly fine particulate matter, and traffic density – apart from increasing the risk of term low birthweight – also reduced the average head circumference at birth, which is concerning because of the potential effect on neurodevelopment.

European air quality needs to be improved says researcher

According to Dr Pedersen, â??The widespread exposure of pregnant women worldwide to urban ambient air pollution at similar or even higher concentrations than those assessed in our study provides a clear message to policy makers to improve the quality of the air we all share.â?

Pollution creates vulnerable offspring

Writing in a linked comment, Professor Jonathan Grigg from Queen Mary, University of London, says that â??Overall, maternal exposure to traffic-derived particulate matter probably increases vulnerability of their offspring to a wide range of respiratory disorders in both infancy and later lifeâ?¦Dissemination of [these] results to the wider public could therefore further increase the pressure on policy makers to reduce the exposure of urban populations to particulate matterâ?¦.â?

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