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Climate Change and Pregnancy Risks

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld
December 29, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Climate change doesn’t only affect the planet. Air pollution, which causes global warming, also kills millions of people every year, the majority of whom reside in low-income or developing countries. And those who don’t die often suffer from impaired lung function and breathing issues. Rising temperatures, which influence the weather and lead to droughts and floods, cause food shortages due to destroyed crops. It seems that what we’re doing to the planet is coming back to bite us.

 

Although climate change affects all of us, recent studies have shown that climate change has a greater effect on pregnant women–their unborn babies are at risk for premature birth, stillbirth, and low birth weight.

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Pregnancy and Prenatal Tests

Pregnancy and Prenatal Tests

A recent study

 

A study published in June 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found an association between hot weather, air pollution, and “adverse pregnancy outcomes.” Researchers reviewed 68 studies in total, which analyzed 32,798,152 births in the United States from the years 2007 to 2019. Of the 68 studies, 57 showed a “significant association” between exposure to heat and air pollution and birth outcomes. The association proved strong across the entirety of the US.

 

The review presented some worrying statistics: One study in the review found that being exposed to high levels of air pollution in the third trimester of pregnancy increased risk of stillbirth by 42%. Another study reviewed found that with every 5.6 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, risk of early birth rose by 11.6%. 

 

Black mothers most at risk

 

Furthermore, the review found that minority women, African-American women in particular, were most at risk for pregnancy complications. Black people are more likely to live in lower income industrial areas, where they are often exposed to high levels of pollutants in the air from nearby factories, and places with higher temperatures.

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Third Trimester Pregnancy - Self-Care

Third Trimester Pregnancy - Self-Care

The likely reason for air pollution disproportionately affecting black mothers is the Great Migration. Between the years 1916 and 1970, millions of African-Americans migrated from the South to the North to work in industrial plants. Their offspring still reside in those areas today and continue to breathe the polluted air. 

 

But make no mistake, all mothers exposed to air pollution pass the effects on to their unborn children. While the risk of pregnancy complications varied with each study, all studies reviewed found that air pollution and hot weather raised a woman’s risk for adverse birth outcomes to some degree. Forty-eight of the 68 studies reviewed found a significant association between air pollution and adverse birth outcomes, while nine studies found a strong link between heat exposure during pregnancy and adverse birth outcomes. 

 

As climate change continues to do damage to the planet and its atmosphere, humans continue to suffer as a result. If we do not find a way to curb air pollution and lower rising temperatures, it’s likely that more and more children will be born with serious health issues.

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