Air pollution placenta study - Barts Charity
city of london air pollution

Pollution reaches the placenta in pregnant women, study finds

Study finds that air pollution particles can move from the lungs to other organs, potentially reaching unborn babies.

  • Date: September 22, 2020

A charity-funded study 

A study funded by Barts Charity has found pollution particles in the placentas of East London mums-to-be. Results show that matter from air pollution can move from the lungs to other organs, and even potentially reach unborn babies.

Shocking findings 

In the research, led by Queen Mary University of London, 15 consenting healthy women donated their placentas – the organs that develop in the uterus during pregnancy to connect mother and baby – following the birth of their children at The Royal London Hospital.

The researchers found:

  • pollution exposure was detected in 13 of the women, with levels above the annual mean limit set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
  • Black particles that closely resembled those from pollution were found in placenta cells from all 15 women. They appeared in an average of 1% of the cells which were analysed.
  • The majority of particles found in the placenta cells were carbon-based, but researchers also found trace amounts of metals. Analysis of these nanoparticles strongly suggests that they came mainly from traffic-related sources.
“Our study shows for the first time that inhaled air pollution travels in the blood stream, and is taken up by important cells in the placenta. We hope that this information will encourage policy makers to reduce road traffic emissions in this post lockdown period.”
Professor Jonathan Grigg, Lead Researcher on the project at QMUL

Potential damage to unborn babies 

Published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, the findings demonstrate that inhaled particulate matter from air pollution can move from the lungs to other organs, including certain cells in the human placenta, and potentially the foetus. However, the researchers say that further research is needed to fully define the direct effect that pollution particles may have on the developing foetus.

Fiona Miller Smith, Chief Executive of Barts Charity says: ”This is an incredibly important study and immensely relevant to mums-to-be in our local community, indeed in any urban community anywhere in the world.

“We are particularly proud to have funded this vital work and truly hope that it will lead to greater awareness of the risks of pollution to the unborn child.”

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