Fetal Toxicity: How Particle Pollution Affects Pregnant Women

How Particle Pollution Affects Pregnant Women

It's no secret that particle pollution is bad for your health. But what you may not know is that it can also be harmful to pregnant women and a fetus as it develops. A 2021 study from Mexico City study found high levels of particle pollution in human fetuses, which could have long-term health effects.

2021 Study on Pregnant Women in Mexico

The new study looked at particle pollution in pregnant women living in Mexico City, one of the most polluted cities in the world. The researchers found that the fetuses of these women had high levels of Particulate Matter (PM) in their bodies

Some of the key findings were:

  • PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀ levels were on average between 22.2µg/m3 and 41.63 µg/m3 throughout the duration of the women's pregnancies – up to double the WHO’s safety threshold2.
  • Prenatal exposure to PM was associated with a decrease in 2 different natriuretic peptides (a protein that indicates heart and respiratory health) among newborns3.
  • From these findings, researchers concluded that exposure to high levels of ambient particle pollution may result in a decrease in fetal heart and respiratory function4.

2022 Study Finds Black Carbon Particles (PM2.5) in Umbilical Cord Blood

A 2022 Lancet study found a strong relationship between the PM load of the mother's blood with that of the cord blood.
  • Black carbon particles were found in the cord blood, confirming that PM can travel across the placenta into the fetus.
  • Black carbon particles were also detected in the fetus's organ tissues during the first and second trimesters.
  • Nearly every sample of organ tissue studied tested positive for toxic air pollutants.

This study concluded that particulate matter pollution inhaled by pregnant women can make its way into fetal organs during gestation.

Why is Fetal Exposure to Particulate Pollution a Concern?

One of the key concerns today is that countless infants are born with organs full of toxic air particles. During this crucial developmental period, their bodies are incredibly vulnerable to any outside disturbances.

Even small concentrations of PM can put newborns at risk for potential health problems later on in life. When a fetus is exposed to particle pollution, there is an increased possibility of numerous health problems in adults.

These include problems such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Cognitive decline
  • Immune deficiencies

But why, specifically, are pregnant women and fetuses more at risk?

Well, they are more susceptible simply because their organs are still developing. Their bodies are less able to remove toxins they’re exposed to. Secondly, their small size means that when a fetus is exposed to a higher ratio of harmful air, it is more damaging to them than to an adult.

Another 2021 study found that exposure to toxic air pollutants is a potential risk factor for an underdeveloped fetal immune system. Researchers found that the immune cell profiles of fetuses whose mothers were exposed to high levels of air pollution were irregular.

What Can Be Done to Reduce Fetal Exposure to Particulate Pollution?

There's no easy answer when it comes to PM pollution. But there are some steps that pregnant women can take to reduce their exposure and ensure their newborns live long, healthy lives.

Here are 7 ways pregnant women can protect themselves:

  1. Check the air quality before you go outside.
  2. Limit your time outdoors on high-pollution days.
  3. Wear a mask when you go outside.
  4. Stay indoors as much as possible.
  5. Keep your windows and doors closed.
  6. Use an air purifier in your home.
  7. Eat a nutritious diet and stay hydrated.

And be sure to stay up to date on air quality alerts so you can plan your activities accordingly. After all, air quality can change rapidly from day to day, like you see on the real-time PurpleAir Map.

The indoor and outdoor monitors provide accurate air quality data reviewed by Community Scientists to provide you with the right information during your pregnancy. By taking these precautions, you can reduce your risk of exposure to particle pollution–protecting your health and the health of your family.

Worried about air quality?

Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map. or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home. 

Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.