August 18, 2019 | 74° F

Air pollution can lead to damage in fetal development, Rutgers study finds

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 Air pollution can have damaging effects on pregnant mothers and their fetuses living in urban areas, places that are downwind of wildfires and developing countries that have poor air quality. 

A Rutgers study unearthed new information finding that air pollution can have a detrimental effect on fetuses in the womb. 

The study, led by Phoebe Stapleton, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Laura Fabris, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was released in the scientific journal “Cardiovascular Toxicology” earlier this year. 

Stapleton said the study specifically looked at single exposure among rats to nanosized aerosols, which are a contributor to particles typically found in air pollution. These rats, which were pregnant, were either exposed to the pollutants earlier or later on in their pregnancies. The results were also compared to pregnant rats that were exposed to filtered air with no pollutants. The question at hand in the study was whether the exposure would have effects on fetal development.

“The state of gestation did not matter,” she said. No matter which stage of pregnancy the mother rats were in, the pollutants still had an effect on the fetuses. 

The rats would also carry fewer puppies during their pregnancies, and the puppies that were carried to term were smaller than average, Fabris said. Though typically rats who carry small puppies have more, this was not the case for the rats in the study. This is because breathing in air pollutants can eventually make its way to the placenta. 

“Inhalation eventually goes through the bloodstream, but there’s more barriers than getting an injection,” she said.

After the particles reach the bloodstream, they can be absorbed into the organs, and eventually come into contact with the placenta, which is considered a temporary organ. 

The air pollutants used in the study were titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which were widely used in such studies and applications, Stapleton said. They were also commonly found in many household products such as sunscreens and face powders. 

This was a “good model nanoparticle to study toxicity,” Fabris said, because they were easy to construct in a laboratory setting and were not too complicated. The particles also disperse well throughout the body and stay separated once they have dispersed. 

In the study, these nanoparticles were used in a high concentration on the mother rats, which Staple said was not reflective of real world environments. These results were relevant, though, when it came to urban setting exposures, being downwind of wildfires or living in a developing country with poor air quality. Air pollution still has negative impacts on pregnant mothers and their fetuses living in these regions. 

Stapleton and Fabris added that the study was not intended to cause alarm in the community, but to raise awareness on how inhaling air pollution can cause repercussions during a pregnancy. 

“It was a very exciting study,” Fabris said. “It’s important to study these things ... I hope there will be future studies looking at other things.” 

Elizabeth Kilpatrick

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