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Scientists Find Black Carbon Particles in Placenta Of Pregnant Women Exposed to Air Pollution

Research reveals that these particles, usually found in emissions from coal power plants and car exhausts, can potentially transfer to unborn babies and lead to low birth weight, miscarriages and premature births.
Shamani Joshi
Mumbai, IN
Black carbon particles found in pregnant womens placentas
Photo via Pixabay

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

Teenagers are pledging to give up having kids in the face of climate change, and new findings are probably giving them even more legit reason to follow through with this. A new study published in the Natural Communications journal, which examined 25 non-smoking pregnant women from the town of Hasselt in Belgium, has revealed that mothers who are exposed to air pollution could potentially be passing it on to their unborn babies through their placentas. The research found thousands of tiny black carbon particles or soot, which is usually emitted by coal power plants or car exhaust fumes, for every cubic metre of the foetal-facing side of the placenta of five premature births and 23 full-term births examined.


This means that there is now evidence that the part of a woman’s body responsible for pumping blood to the developing foetus when pregnant can be penetrated by air pollution particles. Out of the mothers examined, 10 of them who lived closest to busy roads were found to have the highest amount of such particles, which led researchers to assume they travel from the mother’s lungs to her placenta. This could be the first step in explaining how air pollution can lead to miscarriages, low birth weights and premature births since any kind of damage to the foetus at this crucial stage could have consequences.

“This is the most vulnerable period of life. All the organ systems are in development. For the protection of future generations, we have to reduce exposure,” Professor Tim Nawrot from the Hasselt University, the study’s lead, told The Guardian. He said that while it was the responsibility of the government to cut down air pollution, expectant mothers should also avoid busy roads to reduce the risk.

Using a laser technique to detect the pollution particles, which have unique light fingerprints, the study also examined placentas of women who have suffered miscarriages and found that the particles persist even in 12-week foetuses. “We see evidence of particles in all women—it is not like it is a one-off,” said Professor Grigg from Queen Mary University of London, “It implies that every day we have these very small particles moving around our bodies.” While Grigg acknowledges that this is an important reminder for us to keep our air pollution levels down, he said it probably wasn’t much to worry about since the total weight of the particles was too tiny to conclude much without more research on the subject.

"But the black carbon could be damaging the placenta," Jennifer Salmond, an associate professor at the University of Auckland's School of Environment told AFP. "Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this study is that black carbon particles from air that is not even considered to be particularly polluted by WHO standards is nonetheless accumulating in the placenta."

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