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Pregnant Mothers Exposed to Pollution Linked to Birth Defects

Update Date: Mar 29, 2013 11:00 AM EDT

Not only is pollution detrimental for the environment and animals, more research has shown that exposure to pollution during pregnancy can be linked to a higher risk for birth defects. In the latest study, researchers looked into the effects of pollution in the San Joaquin Valley of California, known to be one of the smoggiest areas in the nation. Based from the measurement of pollution and the data regarding birth defects, the researchers found a link between the two.

The researchers evaluated the data compiled of 806 women who had infants with birth defects and 849 women who had healthy births between the years of 1997 to 2006. The entire sample set lived in the San Joaquin valley area during the first eight weeks of pregnancy, and so, they were all exposed to the pollution and smog in the area. The first few weeks of pregnancy are the most important when it comes to the development of birth defects. The researchers looked into two different kinds of neural tube defects, the presence or absence of the cleft palate, and gastroschisis, which is a condition in which the infant's intestines are born outside of the body.

The researchers used information provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and the addresses given by the pregnant women. The pollutants that the researchers recorded included carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particles found in the ozone. The researchers found that women who had the highest exposure to carbon monoxide were twice as likely to give birth to an infant with a spinal birth defect known as spina bifida. Pregnant women who were exposed to nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide at the highest levels in comparison to other women also increased the risk for this particular defect by three-folds.

"We found an association between specific traffic-related air pollutants and neural tube defects, which are malformations of the brain and spine," the lead author of the study, Amy Padula, Ph.D., sated. Padula is a postdoctoral scholar in pediatrics.

Since this is one of the newest studies to monitor the influence of pollutants on pregnant women more effectively and efficiently, more research will need to be done to confirm these findings.

"If these associations are confirmed, this work offers an avenue for a potential intervention for reducing birth defects," Padula stated.

"In addition, for our colleagues who are bench scientists, this work gives them an opportunity to think about what pollution exposures might mean mechanistically. It could give them a better understanding of details of human development," the senior author of the study, Gary Shaw, Ph.D., said. Shaw is a professor of neonatal and developmental medicine.

The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology

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