How air pollution and climate change impact infants and birthing people

At the 2023 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, held in Washington, DC, from April 27 to May 1, 2023, the impact that air pollution and climate change has on infants was discussed.

How air pollution and climate change impact infants and birthing people | Image Credit: © Soloviova Liudmyla - © Soloviova Liudmyla - stock.adobe.com.

How air pollution and climate change impact infants and birthing people | Image Credit: © Soloviova Liudmyla - © Soloviova Liudmyla - stock.adobe.com.

The impacts of climate change are being felt by both infants and their birth-givers, according to the session, “Every breath you take: why ambient air pollution and climate change matter to birthing people and infants,” presented at the 2023 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting.

Presenter Heather L. Brumberg, MD, MPH, FAAP, immediate past president, Eastern Society for Pediatric Research, professor of pediatrics and clinical public health, New York Medical College, neonatology attending and associate director of the Regional Perinatal Center, Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla, New York, noted that air pollution and climate change are linked. Greenhouse gases come from the burning of fossil fuels, industry practices and clearing, and agriculture. Trapped heat from these gases can lead to climate change, increasing temperatures. Increased temperatures can lead to more forest fires and more secondary production of air pollutants.

According to Brumberg, there are several air pollutants that are a cause for concern. Criteria pollutants are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM), including PM with a median diameter less than 10 μm (PM10) and less than 2.5 μm (PM2.5). Other criteria pollutants include sulfur dioxide (SO2) and Ozone (O3). Air pollutants that can be hazardous include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, solvents, and formaldehyde. Carbon dioxide, methane, and perfluorocarbons are examples of greenhouse gases.

To contextualize air pollution, Brumberg demonstrated several pollutants that are common in tobacco products and tobacco smoke. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, PAHs, PM, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) (benzene, formaldehyde), and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and chromium are components of tobacco products that are in common with air pollution.

These air pollutants can have impacts on health in adults, childhood outcomes, and birth outcomes according to the presentation. Potential adult health impacts are cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, metabolic disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Asthma, decreased lung function, atopy, respiratory infections, autism, cognitive effects, cancer, and obesity are potential childhood outcomes associated with air pollution. Worsened air pollution and extreme weather from climate change can have severe impacts on health during pregnancy including low birthweight, intrauterine growth restriction, prematurity, effects on brain development, and infant mortality.

Traffic-related air pollution, according to the presentation, is a risk for developing hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and has been associated with stillbirth, spontaneous abortions, and gestational diabetes, though more studies are needed, the presentation states.

Associations of air pollution and prematurity are also cause for concern. Nationally, 3.32% of all preterm births (PTBs) were attributable to PM2.5 (n = 15,808 PTB) in 2010. According to the presentation, “risk of PTB may be exacerbated by heatwaves (climate) with air pollution synergistically more so than merely adding the risk of each,” but more studies are needed.

The Air Quality Index (airnow.gov) provides information on air quality and actions you can take to protect your health. For example, plan outdoor activities away from major air pollution sources like the highway. Air pollution can be reduced at the individual level by taking public transportation, walking or biking when possible, and not allowing vehicles to idle.

Reference:

Brumberg HL. Every breath you take: why ambient air pollution and climate change matter to birthing people and infants. Presented at: Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, April 27-May 1, Washington, DC.

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