Traffic Pollution Increases Rates of Preterm Birth
Preterm birth is a significant healthcare problem in the United States. While some preterm births are triggered by maternal infection or other problems specific to a particular woman and her pregnancy, researchers in Los Angeles have discovered a connection between traffic-generated pollution and preterm birth, indicating that addressing environmental toxins may play a significant role in risk evaluation and reduction.
Researchers in Southern California tracked pregnant women who delivered between June 2004 and March 2006. These women lived within five miles of a district that was already under evaluation to measure and monitor traffic-generated environmental toxins. Researchers evaluated these women’s exposure to a variety of toxins, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, as well as exposure to fine particulates and other chemicals.
Researchers tracked exposure in the first, second and third trimester, recognizing that seasonal weather and traffic patterns vary the total amount of environmental toxins at a given time. They discovered that women exposed to traffic pollutants in Los Angeles experienced between a 6 to 21 percent increased risk of preterm delivery than was expected.
Researchers speculate that when pregnant women inhale toxins and organic matter released into the atmosphere, triggering inflammation in the lungs, which may cause other immune responses as well.
The current study, published in the journal Environmental Health, sheds light on the relationship between specific environmental pollutants and the particular health risks borne by vulnerable populations. Healthcare providers, community activists and legislators should consider strategies to control and reduce air-borne toxins and pollutants generated by traffic in large urban areas in order to reduce the risks of preterm birth and its associated costs to families and society.
In the United States, between 8 and 10 percent of babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy and are considered preterm. These babies face a host of medical problems and often require intensive care for many weeks or even months. According to the March of Dimes, in 2005 the cost of caring for preterm babies in the United States was more than $26.2 billion. Even after hospital discharge, these children are more likely to face medical problems as they grow and require therapy and special treatment.
Preterm birth also generates a significant social cost. Families with babies in the neonatal intensive care must juggle life outside the hospital, including work, home and obligations to their other children, with visiting and caring for their high-risk newborn.
Pregnant women can reduce their risk of experiencing a preterm delivery by seeking early and frequent prenatal care, eating nutritious foods, gaining the appropriate amount of weight and notifying their healthcare providers if they experience any signs or symptoms of preterm labor.
Environmental Health: Traffic-related air toxins and preterm birth: a population-based case-control study in Los Angeles County, California
March of Dimes: About Prematurity