Study's methodology has potential to boost public health measures and assess interventions
Air pollution nanoparticles reach the liver, lungs, and brains of the unborn foetus, according to pioneering studies from the University of Aberdeen, UK, and Hasselt University, Belgium.
The two studies published in a paper in the Lancet Planetary Health journal found that unborn babies and their placentas are exposed to black carbon nanoparticles in air pollution proportionally to the mother’s exposure.
It discovered that the black carbon nanoparticles can cross the placenta into the foetus as early as the first trimester of pregnancy and circulate to reach developing organs.
Prior to this study it was known that black carbon nanoparticles could reach the placenta, but there was a lack of evidence that the particles could then enter the foetus.
Authors of the study said this finding was concerning as: “Gestation is known as a period of heightened vulnerability for the developing foetus during which organ systems have increased cell proliferation rates, changes in metabolic capabilities, and a restricted capacity for DNA repair.
“It is the life stage during which susceptibility for many diseases later in life is programmed.”
Further research is needed to determine the potentially lifelong consequences for children affected.
Black carbon is produced by burning fossil fuels and is a major component of particulate matter (PM), known to cause harm partly due to their small size – particularly PM2.5 - and ability to penetrate deep into the lungs. Another concerning element to this study is that little is known about nanoparticles, which are even smaller.
“Any governments that are lowering air quality, or environmental standards, or not enforcing them properly are highly misguided.”
One of the authors, Professor Paul Fowler at the University of Aberdeen, said it is known that nanoparticles can carry metals and chemical pollutants such as forever chemicals. That raises the concerning possibility, and need for further work, that black carbon nanoparticles could be a conduit for other pollutants into the body.
Fowler said: “It’s very clear that any governments that are lowering air quality, or environmental standards, or not enforcing them properly are highly misguided. It’s also about priorities – at some point you have to protect your citizen’s health.”
The ill-effects of air pollution on health are urgent and well-known. Dr Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine, Queen Mary University, said: “There’s enough evidence about air pollution’s effect on people to say we need to reduce exposure a lot, initially at least to WHO levels. You could ask ‘what additional information do we need?’
“There is resistance to change and the effects on children can highlight to the public and politicians, the need for change, as opposed to statistics on deaths.”
Grigg added that this methodology had potential to boost public health measures. He said: “This measure of pollution in the body might be a way of assessing interventions such as low traffic zones or masks, which we find difficult to assess as it takes many, many years to see the health effects. That might be important.”
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