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Air pollution exposure increases risk of birth defects

According to new research, women who are exposed to air pollution in the weeks leading up to becoming pregnant and also in the first month after conception run a higher risk of children with certain birth defects, such as cleft lip or palate and heart abnormalities.

While the risk is small, the experts are reporting that the potential overall impact is significant due to the fact that all expectant mothers have some level of exposure to air pollution regardless of where they live.

Emily DeFranco is a physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and senior author of the study.

“The most susceptible time of exposure appears to be the one month before and after conception,” said DeFranco. “Public health efforts should continue to highlight the importance of minimizing population-level exposure to harmful particulate matter in the air.”

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is a mixture of microscopic particles which are so small that they can enter the lower airways and air sacs within the lungs and make their way into the circulatory system.

For their investigation, the researchers used birth certificate data from the Ohio Department of Health and estimates of particulate matter from 57 monitoring stations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) located across the state of Ohio.

The team established each mother’s place of residence and linked the corresponding geographic coordinates with the nearest EPA monitoring station to calculate average PM2.5 exposure. Next, they estimated the association between birth defects and the mother’s exposure to elevated levels of fine particulate matter during pregnancy.

Dr. DeFranco explains that observational studies such as this one have their limitations, but that this analysis provides a solid foundation for future research to expand upon.

The study is published online in The Journal of Pediatrics.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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