New research has identified a potential risk of air pollution to unborn children during pregnancy: black carbon.
Black carbon is a pollutant generated by the burning of fuels such as biomass and fossils. Particles have been detected on the side of the placenta which faces the foetus. The placenta is an organ which develops during pregnancy with the purpose of providing nutrients and oxygen to the foetus.
The detection of these particles on the placenta sounds alarming, though researchers have not yet determined whether the particles can cross the placental barrier. The research, which surveyed 28 pregnant women, aimed to determine whether exposure to black carbon particles in the placenta can cause detrimental effects on health such as low birth weight. Further investigation is needed to ascertain this.
Nonetheless, the research is an important insight into how pollution affects everyday life, including that of pregnant women. What the study indicates is that “black carbon particles are able to translocate from the mothers’ lungs to the placenta.” As stated by Dr Yoel Sadovsky of the Medical Centre at the University of Pittsburgh, “just finding [black carbon] at the placenta is important. The next question would be how much of these black carbon particles need to be there to cause damage.”
The research did determine that long-term exposure to air pollutants heightens the concentration of black carbon particles detected on the placenta. For India, this carries implications given the high levels of pollution in the country. India is home to seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world. As such, in-country data is needed to ascertain whether the presence of black carbon on the placenta affects foetal health and to what degree – to ensure that the effect of such pollution on prenatal and postnatal child development can be monitored and, if possible, mitigated.