Air pollution and pregnancy

Some people worry about the impact of pollution on their health during pregnancy. Here we explain more about the risks associated with pollution and what you can do to limit your exposure.

Some pregnant women worry about whether pollution is bad for a growing baby. Although it’s important to understand the potential risks, try to remember that there is not a lot you can do on your own to reduce pollution. Try not to feel anxious or guilty about this.  

There are many other things that you have much more control over that will have a positive impact on the health of your baby. This includes things like stopping smoking and drinking alcohol, eating a healthy balanced diet and staying active during pregnancy.

What is air pollution?

Pollution affects both the countryside and cities, but it is usually worse in places where there are more people in one area.

Pollution can come from:

  • smoke and gas from vehicles
  • smoke from industrial buildings like factories
  • heat and power generation
  • burning waste
  • cooking, heating, and lighting the home
  • second-hand smoke from cigarettes.

We can make changes in our lives that mean we can avoid some types of pollution, but it would be impossible to avoid all of it.

Reduced pollution from the coronavirus pandemic

Air pollution has reduced a lot during the coronavirus pandemic. This is mainly because there has been less traffic on the road and fewer planes flying. Therefore, it will be possible to compare the health of babies born during the pandemic, with those who were born when pollution was at its highest. This will give us more evidence around the impact of pollution on the health of babies.

Types of pollution

Cigarettes

Stopping smoking and staying away from secondhand smoke is one of the best things you can do to protect your developing baby.

When people smoke in your home, you and your baby will be exposed to the harmful poisons found in tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke has been proven to increase the risk of complications like premature birth, low birth weight and sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Try to encourage any smokers in your home to quit smoking.

Indoor fuel

Pollution from indoor fuel is much easier to control than outdoor pollution. Cookers, heaters and other household appliances can release pollutants into your home. It is important to open the windows to dilute and remove these pollutants from your home with fresh air.

The most dangerous pollutant is carbon monoxide, which is a poisonous gas with no smell or taste. Carbon monoxide is created when fuels like gas, oil, coal, or wood do not burn fully. Make sure that your cooking and heating appliances are regularly serviced, and that chimneys and vents are never blocked.

Household chemicals

There are no official guidelines for pregnant women about the risks of exposure to everyday chemicals, such as those in cleaning products. The best thing to do is know where these chemicals come from, be aware of the potential risks and understand how you can reduce exposure. 

Can pollution reach your baby in the womb?

Research shows that particles of pollution can reach the baby in the womb through the placenta. The highest levels of particles were found in mothers who lived closest to busy roads during pregnancy. Some small studies have shown an association between air pollution and pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight. However, there are many things that increase the risk of these complications and these studies did not prove that air pollution was a direct cause. More research is needed to better understand the impact of pollution on pregnancy. All women are exposed to particles of pollution and it is impossible to avoid them completely. You should try not to let this cause you too much worry and focus on living a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

What can you do to manage your exposure to pollution?

If you are worried about air pollution, here are some tips to help reduce your exposure:

  • Avoid contact with people who are smoking and ask household members who smoke to do so outside.
  • Ventilate your home by opening windows that face away from busy roads.
  • Avoid open fires and wood-burning stoves and try to use gas or electrical appliances. If you need to burn coal or wood, make sure it is unpainted and untreated wood. Look for the ‘ready to burn’ logo. 
  • Try to choose routes that have less traffic when walking around.
  • Pregnant women are recommended to avoid intense outdoor exercise when pollution levels are high. This includes any exercise that makes you breathe a lot faster. This is because you will be breathing in more pollution particles. Try to exercise inside on days when pollution levels are high or stay away from busy roads. The UK Air website allows you to monitor air pollution levels in your area. You can also get air pollution updates on the @DefraUKAir Twitter feed or by calling the Defra helpline on 0800 55 66 77.
  • Currently this is very little evidence to recommend using face masks to avoid pollution.

Studies into pollution and pregnancy complications

There have been some studies into the effect of pollution on pregnancy complications. One study in China showed that women who were exposed to higher levels of pollution also seemed to have an increased risk of experiencing early miscarriage. However, it is important to note that the study was only able to identify this link and did not directly test whether air pollution caused the miscarriages.

Another study showed links between a woman’s exposure to certain air particles during pregnancy and a baby’s risk of preterm birth or low birth weight. Again, there are many factors that may have influenced the results of these individual studies apart from pollution. For example, it may be that the women who lived in areas of high pollution were not able to afford a healthy diet or have good access to healthcare. More research is needed to better understand these risks.

Although these studies may sound worrying, all women are exposed to levels of pollution. There is very little that individuals can do to control their exposure to pollution. If you are worried about it, you can try to reduce your exposure where you can and focus on the elements of your pregnancy that you can control, such as living a healthy lifestyle.

If you are interested in campaigns for cleaner air, you can search online for local campaigns in your area.

Sources

British Lung Foundation, https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/indoor-air-pollution/causes [Accessed 29/05/20]

Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Estimation of changes in air pollution emissions, concentrations and exposure during the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/assets/documents/reports/cat09/2007010844_Estimation_of_Changes_in_Air_Pollution_During_COVID-19_outbreak_in_the_UK.pdf [Accessed 05/07/2020

Laumbach, Robert et al. “What can individuals do to reduce personal health risks from air pollution?.” Journal of thoracic disease vol. 7,1 (2015): 96-107.

Malley C.S., Kuylenstierna J.C.I., Vallack H.W., Henze D.K., Blencowe H., Ashmore M.R. ‘Preterm birth associated with maternal fine particulate matter exposure: A global, regional and national assessment’, Environment International, Volume 101 (2017): 173-18.

RCOG, Chemical Exposures During Pregnancy: Dealing with Potential, but Unproven, Risks to Child Health, Scientific Impact Paper No. 37, 2013.

World Health Organisation, Health, environment, and sustainable development https://www.who.int/sustainable-development/transport/health-risks/air-pollution/en/ [Accessed 27/4/20]

Zhang, L., Liu, W., Hou, K. et al. Air pollution-induced missed abortion risk for pregnancies. Nat Sustain 2, 1011–1017 (2019).

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    Last reviewed on April 20th, 2020. Next review date April 20th, 2023.

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