UF researchers compared birth data with Environmental Protection Agency estimates of air pollution, finding that heavy exposure to four air pollutants led to a significantly increased risk for developing a high blood pressure disorder during pregnancy. The research was published in the January issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The pollutants include two specific types of fine and coarse particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. According to the EPA, particulate matter includes acids, dust, metals and soil particles. These inhalable particles are released from industries and forest fires and can form when gases react with each other in the air. Sulfur dioxide is emitted from power plants and industries. Most carbon monoxide is produced by car exhaust.
“Fetal development is very sensitive to environmental factors,” said Xiaohui Xu, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology in the colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine. “That is why we wanted to do this research. Hypertension (high blood pressure), in particular, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, causing a lot of problems for the mother and fetus, including preterm delivery.”
Hypertensive disorders such as gestational hypertension, preeclampsia and the deadly condition it leads to, eclampsia, affect about 10 percent of pregnancies. Despite the serious risks to mother and baby, little is known about what specifically causes these conditions to develop in pregnant women, the researchers say.
Although more studies are needed, the researchers hypothesize that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may affect a woman’s normal pattern of blood pressure.
“We also want to look at preterm delivery and low birth-weight and find out what the effects of breathing contaminated air are on fetal development.” Xu said.