Pregnancy is an exciting time — you get to pick out names, dream about what the future holds for your growing family, and share in the joy with the people you love. It can also be an experience that is full of questions about how you can keep your baby healthy, before and after he or she is born. You probably know to take prenatal vitamins, have regular check ups with your gynecologist, and avoid certain foods (sorry, no sushi for the next 40 weeks). But there’s another factor you should consider — how air pollution affects pregnancy.
It’s not fun to think about because it often feels like there’s not much that can be done about exposure to air pollution during pregnancy. While it’s true that you won’t be able to avoid all possible pollutants, it’s important to become educated on how air pollution affects pregnancy and what you can do to mitigate your child’s health risk, as well as your own.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution, by definition, is the presence in or introduction into the air of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects. For most, though, air pollution can seem like somewhat of an abstract idea — something that affects the health of the planet overall but doesn’t have much of an impact on the individual level. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air report found that people who live with unhealthy levels of air pollution are at risk of premature death, lung cancer, asthma attacks, and developmental and reproductive harm. Exposure during pregnancy can increase your risk of low birth weight and premature birth, as well as affect your child’s health and development after they are born. Though the number of Americans who live with unhealthy levels of air pollution dropped to 125 million from 166 million in 2016, it’s still a very real issue. Awareness is the key to prevention.
Common outdoor air pollutants and their effect on your child’s health
Whether you live in a big city, a suburb, or a rural town, outdoor air pollution is present. You typically can’t see or smell pollutants so it may not be something you even think about. Now that you’re pregnant, it’s even more important that you do — unborn babies and infants may be at a higher risk of developing health problems due to air pollution. None of this information is meant to scare you; instead, it’s aimed at increasing your awareness. In a later section, we’ll go over steps you can take to reduce your child’s health risk.
Also known as particle pollution, particulate matter is a term that addresses a class of diverse substances that exist as particles. These particles can range in size but, generally, the smallest particles are the most dangerous. They can occur through natural emission, or from the emissions of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, or volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Exposure to particulate matter is known to cause cardiovascular and respiratory health issues, as well as an increased risk of low birth weight and infant mortality for pregnant women, due to respiratory problems after birth.
Ground-level ozone and smog
The ozone itself is not harmful — it’s a naturally formed layer composed of three oxygen atoms, which protects us from sun’s rays. The problem exists when ground-level ozone is created through chemical interactions of man-made and natural emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When ground-level ozone is combined with particulate matter and heat and sunlight, smog is formed.
Studies have found that exposure to ozone in pregnant women can increase the risk of low birth weight, as well as the risk of infant mortality. In addition, infants and children who are exposed may be more likely to develop asthma. More research is still needed but one study conducted in 2023 found that pregnant women exposed to ground-level ozone are more at risk of developing preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure that can affect the health of mom and baby.
Secondhand tobacco smoke
It’s no secret that tobacco smoke is harmful to everyone’s health. If you smoked before you became pregnant, your doctor likely advised you to quit. However, quitting (or not ever having smoked) isn’t always enough to protect you and your baby from the harmful effects of tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke from friends, family, or passersby can still have an impact.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, secondhand smoke can cause “a miscarriage, low birth weight, early birth, learning or behavioral deficiencies in your child, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).”
Common indoor air pollutants and their effect on your child’s health
Your home presents a variety of opportunities for mold growth — from the dampness of your bathroom to the air conditioner in your living room. Coughing, wheezing, and skin, throat, and eye irritation are signs that mold is present. No studies have specifically linked mold exposure to a higher risk of problems during pregnancy but, still, mold can cause many health and respiratory problems. It’s important that you stay healthy before, during, and after pregnancy, so checking for and preventing mold growth is key.
Though you may typically think of pollen as an outdoor allergen and pollutant, it can get into your home through open windows and doors, as well as be carried in on your clothing. High levels of exposure to pollen during pregnancy can increase your baby’s risk of developing asthma early in life. Conversely, allergies symptoms can also be triggered during pregnancy as well.
Dust is one of the most common indoor air pollutants and can trigger allergic reactions.
Combustion pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide are released from appliances like dryers, gas stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces. Even minimal exposure can cause health problems for mom and baby. According to a report published by the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to combustion pollutants can “reduce the capacity of a mother’s blood to carry oxygen (O2), complicating delivery of O2 to the developing fetus. Epidemiological and animal toxicological studies suggest that long-term exposure to ambient CO, especially during the first trimester, may increase risk for preterm birth, reduced fetal growth, and certain birth defects such as cardiac birth defects and otoacoustic deficits.”
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
These organic compounds are present nearly everywhere — from cleaning products to paint to cosmetics — and are released into the air as gases. Some types of VOC’s are formaldehyde, acetone, benzene, and ethylene glycol. Like with other air pollutants, VOCs are linked to childhood asthma.
How to reduce your child’s health risk
You want to keep your child safe and healthy. Though you can’t completely eliminate your exposure to air pollution, there are steps you can take to limit it. Even small reductions in the pollutants you’re exposed to can go a long way in ensuring a healthy pregnancy and birth.
Check out air quality news reports
Airnow.gov is a great resource that allows you to check the air quality in your city. You can use the information in these reports to know when to stay indoors (when pollution levels are high) and when it’s safe to spend extended periods of time outdoors (when levels are lower).
Don’t exercise near high-traffic areas
Particulate matter and ground-level ozone are often heavier near highways or high-traffic streets, due to the presence of gases. Because high energy expenditure can increase the amount of air pollutants you expose your lungs to, it’s best to avoid exercising near these areas.
Avoid exposure to paint fumes and cleaning products
Pregnant or not, it’s smart to avoid your exposure to paint fumes and toxic cleaning products. You can do this by ensuring that you’re properly ventilating any areas being painted or cleaned, using low- or- zero-VOC products, and using alternative cleaning products like baking soda and vinegar. If you want to take extra precautions, have a friend or family member do the heavy cleaning when you’re pregnant.
Use an indoor air purifier
Keeping your indoor air clean can have a huge impact on the levels of pollutants you’re exposed to. One of the best ways to do this is by using an indoor air purifier like the Molekule PECO, which is designed to destroy pollutants, allergens, viruses, and mold.
Change air filters
Pregnancy can often cause you to be hot, then cold, then hot again. When you’re using your air conditioning and heating units, it’s important to change the filters regularly. They can trap dirt, dust, and pet dander, as well as grow mold. Changing them can help prevent these air pollutants from being released into the air.
Keep your home mold and dust free
As you know, mold and dust are two common indoor air pollutants that may have a negative impact on your health. Dusting regularly, keeping your home at proper humidity levels, and inspecting for mold growth can all help prevent health issues.
Keep your stress levels low
Last but certainly not least, it’s important that you keep your stress levels low during pregnancy. This can be challenging but studies have found that stress can “amplify the health effects of toxic chemical exposure,” according to Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
Low birth weight, childhood allergies and asthma, and developmental problems are all things that no parent wants to face. Thankfully, becoming aware of how air pollution affects pregnancy puts you in a position to reduce your child’s health risk, as well as your own.