Air pollution puts unborn babies at risk

a person in blue denim jeans holding baby s foot
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New research has found that pregnant women who live in areas with high air pollution in South Africa are more likely to give birth to a child with a congenital birth defect known as cleft lip and palate (CLP).

The study, which was conducted by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) in partnership with Operation Smile, looked at cases of CLP from 2006 to 2020 and found that air pollution exposure during early pregnancy was linked to an increased trend in CLP cases.

According to the SAMRC, air pollution in South Africa comes from a variety of sources including “coal-fired power stations, traffic, domestic fuel burning, mining, industry and other sources”.

Dr Caradee Wright, Chief Specialist Scientist at the SAMRC’s Environment and Health Research Unit, said “we wanted to explore whether a mother’s exposure to air pollution affected her baby’s cleft lip and palate risk in South Africa”.

The research identified clusters of CLP birth hotspots in Gauteng, Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga, and Free State, which highlights the need for more stringent air quality management in these areas.

The study’s findings underscore the importance of raising awareness about the risks of air pollution to unborn children and the need for more effective management of air quality standards.

Researchers have called for the implementation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards and Air Pollution Priority Areas to manage air quality more strictly.

Dr Wright emphasized the importance of educating mothers about the risks of air pollution to their unborn child, especially in the early stages of pregnancy.

She advises pregnant women to “avoid making fires indoors without adequate ventilation and not walking or exercising on busy roads during peak traffic hours”.

Babies born with CLP can experience difficulties such as speech impediments, physical deficiencies in appearance, and psychosocial issues.

They may also face nutritional problems due to their inability to consume food properly.

The research found that the use of a multidisciplinary approach, where multiple disciplines collaborate and share data on all maternal information and pollutant volumes in all provinces of South Africa can prevent CLP where possible.

As Dr Wright puts it, “it’s important that if someone wants to fall pregnant, they try and limit air pollution exposure”.

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