This should be a significant concern to mothers, since infants with a low birth rate often experience considerably more health problems compared to infants of normal weight. Statistically more likely health problems of a low-birth-rate infants include:
- Post-birth problems, such as perinatal morbidity and infections
- Delayed motor skills development
- Learning disabilities
- Social development problems
Why fetuses are more vulnerable to air pollution and pesticides
For example, in early life, the nervous system is still developing, which makes it highly influenced by exposure to neurotoxic pesticides. Likewise, certain metabolic and enzyme activities performed by the kidneys and liver are not yet "mature" or complete and are easily disrupted during fetal development.
A 2005 neurotoxicolgy study found that several other factors contribute to a fetus’ vulnerability to air pollution and toxins:
- The fetus absorbs and retains toxic substances at a higher rate than post-birth.
- The fetus has a reduced ability to detoxify chemicals and repair damage to DNA, compared to post-birth children.
- The fetus also has a higher rate of cell proliferation occurring during any toxin exposure.
In a 2003 study of a group of minority women and their infants, scientists discovered that developing fetuses may be as much as 10 times more susceptible to DNA damage from before-birth exposure to airborne polyaromatic hydrocarbons than the mother is.
Other studies have shown negative effects on an infant's growth from pre-birth exposure to certain pesticides. In one of these studies, involving pregnant women at prenatal clinics in January 1998, scientists followed them until 2004, capturing data showing that, when the EPA phased out residential use of the pesticide chloropyrifos in 2001, infants exposed prenatally to this pesticide before the phase-out had significantly reduced birth weight and shorter length. Similar studies showed that toxin-exposed infants were born with low activity levels of important enzymes that affect the infant's ability to metabolize and detoxify they were exposed to. And a 2007 study showed that infants with prenatal pesticide exposure had smaller head circumferences (Berkowitz et all. 2004, Wolff et al. 2007). Statistically, smaller head circumferences correlate with reduced intelligence and decreased cognitive function later in life.
What can pregnant mothers do to protect their unborn children?
- Quit smoking, and avoid being in the presence of other smokers while pregnant.
- Avoid unnecessary exposure to indoor or outdoor air pollution.
- Consider getting a portable indoor air purifier that you can take with you from room to room.
- Drink purified water to ensure that your water is not contaminated with lead, which is considered by the CDC to be an environmental risk factor.
- In many states, you can help reduce air pollution where you live by reporting smoking vehicles or other general air pollution complaints. In California, for instance, you can File an Air Pollution Complaint online.
- Consider putting a carbon monoxide detector in your home that will sound an alert when the levels are too high.
- Switch from using chemical-based household cleaners to more natural cleaning methods, such as vinegar.
To become a more informed pregnant mother, and to get more information on what you can do to help avoid low birth weight problems, you can learn about toxic air pollutants from the EPA, or explore the CDC's National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (Tracking Network) – a system of integrated health, exposure, and hazard information and data from a variety of national, state, and city sources.