Toxic womb: soot smothers babies before they’re born
Babies catch a whiff of the big, bad world before they even enter it - and SA children are particularly in danger
It has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt: unborn babies are severely and directly affected by air pollution.
Earlier studies showed the link between air pollution and low birth weight, prematurity and infant mortality.
The new study, however, takes it a step further: it has established that tiny particles of carbon dioxide can actually reach the placenta directly via the bloodstream when a pregnant mother breathes in polluted air.
The study, carried out by Queen Mary University in London, was presented over the weekend to much alarm.
One of the lead researchers on the project, Dr Lisa Miyashita, said: “We’ve known for a while that air pollution affects foetal development and can continue to affect babies after birth and throughout their lives. We were interested to see if these effects could be due to pollution particles moving from the mother’s lungs to the placenta. Until now, there has been very little evidence that inhaled particles get into the blood from the lung.”
The researchers worked with five pregnant women who were all living in London and due to have planned caesarean section deliveries at the Royal London Hospital.
They were all nonsmokers with an uncomplicated pregnancy, and each one gave birth to a healthy baby.
The women all gave permission for researchers to study their placentas after delivery.
The results point a finger directly at the burning of fossil fuels. This is of particular concern in a country like South Africa, where so many people burn fossil fuels in tiny and poorly ventilated shacks and houses.
In a recent SADC status report on renewable energy, it was found that every year, 7,600 South Africans die from household air pollution alone.
No study has yet been done on how many unborn babies are being exposed to these perils, but it is likely to be high.
The household air pollution is a direct result of cooking with wood and coal inside houses and shacks.
Leanne Jansen, 21, who lives in a shack in the Pooke se Bos informal settlement near Cape Town with her three siblings, says her family has learnt to live with the charred black tin walls of their shack and the time spent collecting wood every day.
Both her parents died, and she and her brother of 23 look after their two younger siblings, aged 11 and 15.
“We cook inside because of the rainy days, and also for heat because the place is full of holes. The fire makes the tin sheets thin and then they start to rust. There is electricity, but the only income we have is the child support, and I don’t have a stove anyway. I use wood which I spend up to an hour collecting each day. It affects our lungs – especially the two younger ones who get sick from the smoke,” she says.
Health risks associated with household air pollution include pneumonia, low birth weight, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, lung cancer and even cataracts, according to the World Health Organisation.
Currently, 77% of people in Africa are exposed to household air pollution.
Professor Mina Gaga, president of the European Respiratory Society, said of the recent study: “We need stricter policies for cleaner air to reduce the impact of pollution on health worldwide because we are already seeing a new population of young adults with health issues.”