Black Carbon Found In Placentas -Fetal Side - Of Women Exposed To Air Pollution: A Shocking Study
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Black Carbon Found In Placentas -Fetal Side – Of Women Exposed To Air Pollution: A Shocking Study

Research finds black carbon particles breathed by mothers can cross into unborn children

Air pollution black carbon particles have been found in the fetal side of placentas of women exposed to air pollution, indicating that the unborn babies are directly exposed to the black carbon produced by motor traffic and fuel burning.

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The research work is the first study to show the placental barrier can be penetrated by air pollution particles breathed in by the mother. It found thousands of the tiny particles of black carbon per cubic millimeter of tissues in every placenta analyzed.

The link between exposure to air pollution and increased miscarriages, premature births, and low birth weights is well established previously. This research suggests that the particles themselves may be the cause, not solely the inflammatory response the pollution produces in mothers.

Damages to fetuses have lifelong consequences and Prof. Tim Nawrot of Hasselt University in Belgium, who led this research study, said that pregnancy is the most vulnerable period of life and all the organ systems of the baby are in development. For the protection of future generations, we will have to reduce exposure to these harmful particles of air pollution. He added that governments have the responsibility of cutting air pollution but that people should avoid busy roads if possible.

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The comprehensive global review concluded that air pollution and its particles may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in our human body. Nanoparticles of the air pollution have also been found to cross the blood-brain barrier of the human and billions of them have been found in the hearts of young city dwellers.

While air pollution is being controlled and is reducing in some of the nations, the evidence of harm caused by even low levels of this is rapidly increasing and about 90% of the world’s population lives in places where the air pollution is above WHO guidelines.

The research study is published in the journal Nature Communications. The team examined twenty-five placentas from non-smoking women in the Hasselt town. It has particle pollution levels well below the European Union limit, although above the World Health Organization limit. Scientists used a laser technique in order to detect the black carbon particles, which have a unique light fingerprint.

In each case, the team found nanoparticles on the fetal side of the placentas and the number correlated with air pollution levels experienced by these mothers. There was an average of about 20,000 nanoparticles per cubic millimeter in the placentas of mothers who lived near main roads. For those stays further away, the average of about 10,000 per cubic millimeter.

The team also examined placentas from miscarriages. They found the particles were present even in 12-week-old fetuses. The first report on possible pollution particles in placentas was presented at a conference on September 2018, though the composition of the air pollution particles had not been confirmed.

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Nawrot added that the detection of the particles on the fetal side of the placental barrier means it was very likely the fetuses were exposed. He further said that the work to analyze fetal blood for air pollution particles is now underway, as is research to see if the particles cause DNA damage.

The research team also found black carbon particles in the urine of primary school children. This study was published in 2017 and they had found an average of about 10 million particles per milliliter in hundreds of 9-to-12-year-olds tested. This shows that there is translocation of particles from the lungs to all organ systems, said Nawrot.

He added that it is really difficult to give people practical advice on this just because everyone has to breathe. But what people can do to avoid these health issues caused due to air pollution particles is avoid busy roads as much as possible. Because there can be very high levels of pollution next to busy roads, but just a few meters away can be lower.

Prof Jonathan Grigg, whose team presented the first report of particles in 5 placentas in September, welcomed the research study and said the team’s work had since been expanded and would be published soon.

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Grigg at the Queen Mary University of London in the UK said that they see shreds of evidence of particles in all women which is not like it is a one-off. This implies that every day we have these very small particles moving around in our bodies.

He added that we should be protecting our fetuses and this is another reminder that we need to get the air pollution levels down. But people should not be totally scared. The total weight of the tiny particles of air pollution was very small and more research studies were needed to determine their impact, but he advised people to use lower pollution transport options public transport, rather than cars.

Grigg sais that this new field of study certainly focuses our attention on the direct role of these particles getting to the tissues, rather than particles getting into the lungs and releasing other inflammatory substances.

Air pollution research study now shows full-scale bodily harm, from lung and heart disease to diabetes and reduced intelligence to brittle bones and damaged the skin. World Health Organization calls air pollution a public health emergency and recent analysis indicates that about 8.8 million early deaths each year, though researchers suspect even this may be “the tip of the iceberg”.


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Ria Roy completed her Post Grad degree at the Visvesvaraya Technological University. She has a great grounding in the skills, including technical, analytical and research skills. She is a motivated life science professional with experience of working in famous research institutes