Few of us ever give thanks to our placenta. You should. It’s the most important organ you no longer have. It’s the ultimate vascular, or blood vessel, structure. Air pollution, on the other hand, is the ultimate vascular insult, causing inflammation, constriction and impaired blood flow. Given that, it should come as no surprise that air pollution could wreak havoc with placental function and jeopardize its irreplaceable role as facilitator of fetal development. When a fetus is deprived of sufficient blood flow, or the blood is contaminated with particles, chemicals or toxins from the mother, the end result can range from fetal demise to subtle but meaningful harm to any and all organs. Poor pregnancy outcomes, like miscarriages, premature birth, low birth weight, pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, birth defects and still births, all increase with more air pollution.
The development of the fetal brain is nature’s most magnificent biological process. New brain cells are added at a rate of 250,000 per minute, reaching a total of 100- to 200-billion cells. Each cell has to migrate to a precise location at just the right time, connecting to a thousand other cells, with nerve-to-nerve connections estimated at 100 trillion. Even short-term interference with this exquisitely delicate process, for just days or weeks, will impair the end result.
Some lawmakers take the view that we can largely overlook our inversions because our average pollution is acceptable. But averages can tell a misleading story. The tragedy of lead contaminated water in Flint, Mich. illustrates why. The amount of brain damage from lead is inversely proportional to the age of the victim (i.e. the fetus is the most at risk). Lead is so toxic that just a flake of peeling contaminated paint or pipe corrosion can cause brain damage, even though lead only lasts a few weeks in the bloodstream. By looking only at average blood-lead levels of a child, you can completely miss an event that caused irreversible damage to a young brain. By looking only at average lead levels in the community, you can miss the entire picture.
Just like water, contaminated air can be the delivery mechanism for toxins that include lead and even more neurotoxic heavy metals like mercury. And chemicals ranging from dioxins to PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). PAHs are found in most combustion pollution, but they are particularly high from oil refineries and extraordinarily high in wood smoke. Numerous studies have shown that the tiny particles in air pollution can have significant clinical affects on brain function and provoke disorders throughout the age spectrum, ranging from children with learning disabilities to adults with Alzheimers. Other studies in both animals and humans document deterioration in brain size, architecture, microbiology, DNA and loss of critical brain proteins and chemical transmitters.
Air pollution can alter the chemical bath, or “epigenetics” that supports and influences the functioning of genes. Epigenetic changes can turn genes on or off inappropriately, triggering a long list of future disease vulnerabilities, like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Those changes can occur within minutes after exposure, some can persist throughout a lifetime, and can even be passed on to future generations. At least three generations can be placed in harms way by just a brief pollution event. We are what our grandparents inhaled. Our grandchildren will be what we inhale.
The littlest victims of air pollution have no lobbyists on Capitol Hill. But little lives matter. Even short-term inversions can put them in jeopardy.
Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.