The World Health Organization recognizes air pollution to be a significant risk factor for severe and fatal conditions like heart attack, stroke, COPD, and lung cancer, and there is also substantial evidence that air pollution causes kidney disease. New research finds air pollution linked to miscarriage as well.
Most studies have looked at the cumulative effects of air pollution upon public health by connecting air pollution levels to higher incidences of disease and mortality in certain populations. Air pollution may turn out to be a factor in acute toxicity as well, according to a recent study that considered data from one of the world’s most polluted cities.
An article published this month in Environmental Science and Pollution Research explored the acute health effects of air pollution upon pregnant women living in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, which the World Health Organization dubbed the world’s most polluted city in 2015.
The study compared pollution data collected by the EPA against patient data from nearly 50,000 women who gave birth between 2008 and 2015 to see how different pollutants affected the incidence of miscarriage, preterm delivery, and stillbirth.
Air Pollution Linked to Miscarriage, Premature Babies & Still Births
Researchers found significant associations between levels of sulfur dioxide and miscarriage within 10 days of a pregnancy outcome, while elevated levels of nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter smaller than 10 µm raised the risk of premature birth in that same timeframe. (There was no data available for particles smaller than 2.5 µm, though particulate matter of this size has increasingly been understood to be a health hazard.) The researchers linked elevated levels of some of these air pollutants with same-day adverse pregnancy outcomes.
The Dangers of Air Pollution
The authors of the study cited previous findings that have linked air pollution to low birth weight, birth defects, SIDS, and preeclampsia. How air pollution puts women’s pregnancy at risk is not entirely understood, but the study suggested that the speed of cellular growth in utero, as well as in young children, increases the chances that pollution-related defects will occur on the cellular level.
Geographical and industrial factors are at the root of Ahvaz’s toxic air, with emissions from nearby and regional petrochemical, oil, gas, and steel factories exacerbating already hazardous air conditions caused by urban and natural air pollutants. The authors of the study recommended that public authorities alert pregnant women to stay at home when air quality is poor, though it’s unclear what levels of air pollution are genuinely acceptable for public health.
Even in the United States, where air pollution levels are much lower per EPA regulations, air pollution is directly tied to the deaths of thousands of people annually.
In the short term, the best measure people can take to protect their health is to reduce their exposure to air pollution when possible — especially vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women, and the elderly. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that environmentally sound policies and clean technologies are the best way to protect the public health in the long run.
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