Air pollution from road traffic is putting unborn babies’ health at risk, according to a new study.
The findings published in the BMJ suggest exposure to traffic pollution in London during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight.
A team led by Imperial College London used national birth registers to study more than 540,000 births in Greater London between 2006 and 2010.
Researchers estimated average monthly concentrations of traffic-related pollutants by looking at the mother’s home address at the time of birth.
An analysis of the data found that increases in traffic-related air pollutants were associated with 2% to 6% increased odds of low birth weight and 1% to 3% increased odds of being small for gestational age.
“The findings suggest that air pollution from road traffic in London is adversely affecting foetal growth,” the study’s authors concluded.
“With the annual number of births projected to continue increasing in London, the absolute health burden will increase at the population level, unless air quality in London improves.”
The study found no evidence that exposure to road traffic noise was linked to birth weight but the authors said they “cannot rule out that an association might be observed in a study area with a wider range of noise exposures”.
Researches said the findings apply to other cities across the UK and Europe and are calling for policies to improve air quality in urban areas.
Writing an editorial in the medical journal, University of Edinburgh lecturers Sarah Stock and Tom Clemens described the results as “concerning”, adding: “A global perspective reveals something approaching a public health catastrophe.”
They argue the study should “increase awareness that prenatal exposure to small particle air pollution is detrimental to the unborn child”, but stress that increasing awareness without solutions “may serve only to increase maternal anxiety and guilt”.
The lecturers point to the improvement of air quality in Berlin during the 2008 Olympics as an example of what can be achieved, but said the challenge is to maintain reductions in pollution in the longer term with measures such as reducing congestion and tackling diesel emissions.