Pollution Gives Asthma to the Unborn

  by  |  February 26th, 2009  |  Published in All, Blog


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By Heather Mayer

Pregnant women go to great lengths to ensure good health for their unborn babies: cutting out things like alcohol or caffeine while adding certain recommended foods.

But evidence is mounting for a risk factor that moms-to-be can’t easily control: where they live during pregnancy.

New research published in the journal PLoS ONE shows that children born in areas where there is high pollution due to traffic are more likely to develop asthma, and that the asthma is attributed to changes in the womb, not exposure after birth. The work was done by researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Also on ScienCentral

Unfortunately, this study isn’t the only one to discover negative health risks of pollution on unborn children. In addition to the higher risk of asthma, fetuses that are exposed to pollution — fossil fuels and traffic pollution — also are at risk for mental deficiencies. (See "Also on ScienCentral for news videos on the same Columbia University research team that worked on this study.)

The UC study is the first to look at the effects of prenatal ambient air pollutant exposure on epigenetic changes linked to asthma. The researchers analyzed the umbilical cords from infants born to mothers living in northern Manhattan and the South Bronx. They found an epigenetic alteration in the gene ACSL3, which is associated with prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Exposure to PAHs, which come from incomplete combustion of fuels from cars and trucks — has been linked to diseases such as cancer and childhood asthma.

The exposure to PAHs, the research suggests, seems to reprogram fetal genes and lead to airway inflammation or asthma during childhood.

What Can Expectant Moms Do About This?

The Columbia research team at the Center for Children’s Environmental Health have a web page that details their advice. You can see it here.

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