Air Pollution Can Cause Birth Defects and Fetal Death According to a New Study

A new study on female rats shows the effects of severe air pollution are dire.
Jessica Miley

Using an animal model scientist from Texas A&M University have determined that air pollution can cause congenital disabilities and even fatalities during pregnancy.

The researchers exposed female rats to fine particulate matter consisting of ammonium sulfate as one of the most common air pollutants around the world.

Large amounts of this substance have been recorded in the air in Asia but also the US. For example, Houston showed air test results as high as 51 percent and Los Angeles recorded 31 percent.

Air pollution is a major global crisis. According to the World Health Organisation, 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe air containing a high level of pollutants.

What does all this bad air do?

The effects of this are just beginning to be understood. A recent report indicated that the toxic air isn’t just affecting the respiratory system but can have negative effects on every organ in the body. 1 of every 9 global deaths can be attributed to exposure to air pollution, totaling over 7 million premature deaths a year.

Despite many considering ammonium sulfate to not be highly toxic, the resulting study on rats proves that there are seven consequences of breathing air polluted with the substance during pregnancy.

"People typically believe that ammonium sulfate may not be terribly toxic, but our results show large impacts on female pregnant rats," Renyi Zhang, Texas A&M Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and the Harold J. Haynes Chair in Geosciences and one of the leading authors, said.

"It is unclear yet what is causing these profound effects, but we speculate that the size of nanoparticles or even the acidity may be the culprit."

Coal burning and agriculture likely cause

One of the main sources for sulfate is from coal burning, which is still the most common energy source in the developed world. Ammonia is used in fertilizer for intense agricultural activities as well as animal production and in manufacturing processes.

Zhang’s research provides definitive proof of decreased fetal survival rates, in addition to shortened gestation rates. This shorter pregnancies lead to smaller body weight, damage to brains, hearts, and other organs in the adult rat models.

Zhang says that despite there being much knowledge around the effects of air pollution little research has been done on how to prevent or treat sickness caused by air pollution.


"Furthermore, there is an absence of clinical recommendations for prevention and treatment of air pollution-related health issues. Our study has demonstrated that well-controlled exposure experiments using animal models offer major advantages for future air pollution control and are promising in the development of therapeutic intervention and treatment procedures," Zhang says. 

A recent report from State of Global Air (SOGA) 2019 states that air pollution is also reducing the life span of children exposed to air pollution by as much as 20 months.

Children all across the world are affected by breathing in toxic air. Children in South Asia will have their lives cut by 30 months. In sub-Saharan Africa life expectancy is reduced by 24 months; the report indicates.

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