By Dr Nikhil Datar
Air pollution has been a significant environmental cause of diseases globally. Most doctors will agree that the number of patients complaining of cough and bronchitis during and after the festive season continues to be on a rise. While air pollution can affect everyone, it has the most severe impact on pregnant women, children, babies, those with respiratory problems, and the elderly. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, which appears in the journal Fertility and Sterility, exposure to common air pollutants, such as ozone and fine particles, may increase the risk of early pregnancy loss. Multiple studies also indicate that air pollution contributes to lower fertility rates in men and women.
During pregnancy, the growing uterus pushes the diaphragm up, making expecting mothers feel short of breath and thereby disturbing their sleeping patterns. The poor quality of air leads to an inflammation of the respiratory tract.
Potential dangers of being exposed to air pollution during pregnancy
During pregnancy, the increased consumption of dust pollutants and particles from the air itself causes chronic irritation of the respiratory tract, thus leading to inflammation and causing chronic cough, wheezing, congestion, eye and sinus irritation, asthma and chronic fatigue. Medication during pregnancy is restricted, to avoid complications.
- Low birth weight: Babies who weigh less than 2500 grams at birth are considered low birth weight. There can be many reasons for this. In India, more common reasons are malnutrition, anaemia and high blood pressure during pregnancy. Although it is unclear as to which pollutant is responsible, it is clear that birth weights are higher in less polluting weather.
- Preterm birth: A study published in British medical journal in the year 2012 concluded that increased ozone exposure in the first trimester is linked to higher chances of preterm birth and development of high blood pressure during pregnancy. Hence, air pollution is detrimental to the health of pregnant women as well as unborn babies.
- Autism: According to a recent study published in the JAMA journal of paediatrics on air pollution during pregnancy, the researchers studied the effect of increased particulate matter, nitrous oxide and nitric oxide gas on newborn babies. It has been found that an increase in nitrous oxide was directly associated with the increase in the number of babies having autism spectrum disorders.
What can be done?
The air quality index tells us the quality of air we live in. It is very important for us to be aware of the air quality levels in your city. According to the World Health Organization, 92 per cent of the world’s population lives in poor air quality. Recently, it was shown that the air quality in the city of Mumbai had dropped down to very poor levels. In such weather, the smog created by particles settles down during early hours of the day. It is advisable to stay indoors at such time to avoid exposure to polluted air.
If you or your partner is a smoker, then you may be at a real risk. If you are a smoker and continue to do so during pregnancy, the chance of complications including sudden bleeding and sudden foetal death are high. If your partner is a smoker, then you may land up inhaling the smoke passively. So all efforts must be taken to avoid passive smoking, particularly during pregnancy.
It is advisable to avoid crowded public places for long hours. Again at these places, there is a high chance of inhaling smoke, paint and dust. If there is any such activity happening around you, allow the fresh air to pass through the windows.
Keeping the area around you dust-free and clean can reduce the particle count around you. It is advisable during pregnancy that air purifiers are installed in our houses and tree plantation is encouraged. The society needs to take the ownership of reducing pollution. Pregnancy is wellness and not an illness, and while many things can influence the health of you and your baby, air pollution is something that needs to be avoided for the healthy growth of the baby.
(The writer is Senior Gynaecologist & Medical Director, Cloudnine Hospital Mumbai.)