UC Berkeley researchers find connection between air pollution and lower birth weights

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A study co-authored by UC Berkeley researchers found that women who are exposed to more air pollution while pregnant have an increased risk of giving birth to underweight babies.

The study, Particulate Air Pollution and Fetal Growth, was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last Wednesday and analyzed the effects of air pollution on more than 3 million babies born between the late 1990s and mid-2000s.

The data from the study were aggregated from 14 different sites, giving researchers more confidence in the accuracy of their findings, said Tracey Woodruff, a co-author of the study and director of the UC San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.

“What makes the study unique is that the bulk of (air pollution) studies are on cardiovascular disease,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a study co-author and UC Berkeley professor in the College of Natural Resources. “Only recently have we started to look at birth outcomes. Mothers are a unique population that need to be taken into consideration.”

Morello-Frosch said the centers analyzed fine particulate matters from traffic, factories, power plants and larger particles that came from dust, roadways and fires.

With a pollution level of around 29 micrograms per cubic meter, California’s air pollution was more than the state standard for particulate matter and more than that of Connecticut, New Jersey and Atlanta.

The study also found the highest levels of air pollution in Seoul and Sao Paolo, while the lowest pollution levels were in Vancouver.

Woodruff added that a low birth weight can have long-term medical effects on the infant. Underweight babies can suffer increased infection, respiratory issues, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, she said.

An epidemiological study published in 2006 in the scientific journal Circulation found that low birth weight puts individuals at a greater risk for glucose intolerance, Type 2 diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases later in life.

Additionally, a UCLA study published last June concluded that low birth weight is also a risk factor for obesity in adulthood.

The study published Wednesday found that there was a 3 percent increase in the risk of low birth weight with every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter in fine particles.

“It is like starting off life (with) a potential handicap,” Woodruff said.

Morello-Frosch and Woodruff said they hope these findings will bring environmental issues into the medical sphere and reinforce the importance of pollution regulation.

“Individual women are not going to be able to avoid exposure that is everywhere,” Morello-Frosch said. “This suggests the need to look at the public health benefits of good (pollution) regulatory standards that protect vulnerable populations.”

By reducing the number of low birth weights, more stringent environmental regulations can help improve health over the life course of the next generation, Morello-Frosch said.

Contact Alyssa Neumann at [email protected]