Air Pollution Damages Babies in Womb, Study ShowsReturn To Front Page
(Feb. 16, 2005) -- In disturbing news of interest to people living in LB and southeast L.A. County, a newly released study shows that mothers' exposure to air pollutants is linked to chromosome damage in babies. Such chromosome damage can precipitate cancers.
"A new study of 60 newborns in New York City reveals that exposure of expectant mothers to combustion-related urban air pollution may alter the structure of babies' chromosomes while in the womb. While previous experiments have linked such genetic alterations to an increased risk of leukemia and other cancers, much larger studies would be required to determine the precise increase in risk as these children reach adulthood," said a release from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS).
"This is the first study to show that environmental exposures to specific combustion pollutants during pregnancy can result in chromosomal abnormalities in fetal tissues," said Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., the director of NIEHS. "These findings may lead to new approaches for the prevention of certain cancers."
Airborne pollutants, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), were monitored among non-smoking African-American and Dominican mothers in three NYC low-income neighborhoods (Harlem, Washington Heights and the South Bronx) but researchers say the results are relevant in other urban areas.
"Although the study was conducted in Manhattan neighborhoods, exhaust pollutants are prevalent in all urban areas, and therefore the study results are relevant to populations in other urban areas," said Dr. Frederica P. Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health and senior author of the study.
The air pollutants considered in the study include emissions from cars, trucks, bus engines, residential heating, power generation and tobacco smoking. Such pollutants can cross the placenta and reach the fetus, the release said. It continued:
Exposure to combustion pollutants was assessed through personal questionnaires and portable air monitors worn by the mothers during the third trimester of their pregnancies. Researchers then calculated the concentration of air pollution to which each pregnant woman and her baby were exposed. Study participants exposed to air pollution levels below the average were designated as having "low exposure," while those exposed to pollution levels above the average were designated as having "high exposure."
"We observed 4.7 chromosome abnormalities per thousand white blood cells in newborns from mothers in the low exposure group, and 7.2 abnormalities per thousand white blood cells in newborns from the high exposure mothers," said Perera. "In particular, stable alterations were increased, which are of greatest concern for potential risk of cancer, since cells with this type of abnormality can persist in the body for long periods of time."
Chromosomal abnormalities were measured in umbilical cord blood by a "chromosome painting" technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization, one that enabled researchers to observe the structural changes within the chromosome. Chromosomes are the threadlike packages in the nucleus of the cell that contain the cell's genetic information.
"This evidence that air pollutants can alter chromosomes in utero is troubling since other studies have validated this type of genetic alteration as a biomarker of cancer risk," said Perera. "While we can't estimate the precise increase in cancer risk, these findings underscore the need for policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels to take appropriate steps to protect children from these avoidable exposures."
Previous studies conducted by Perera and colleagues showed that combustion-related air pollutants significantly reduce fetal growth, which may affect cognitive development during childhood.
The study is part of a broader, multi-year research project, "The Mothers & Children Study in New York City," started in 1998, which examines the health effects of exposure of pregnant women and babies to air pollutants from vehicle exhaust, the commercial burning of fuels, and tobacco smoking, as well as from residential use of pesticides and allergens.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District has previously called operations related to the combined Ports of LB-LA the region's worst single source of air pollution. Acting on the initiative of L.A. Mayor James Hahn, the Port of Los Angeles is preparing to release an initiative to produce "no net increase" in pollution with growth.
LB Mayor Beverly O'Neill, who has held office since July 1994, has not introduced a similar initiative calling for no net increase in pollution from the Port of LB. In 2004, the Port of LB lobbied against legislation authored by LB area then-Assemblyman (now state Senator Alan Lowenthal) that would have held the Ports to no net increase in pollution with growth. The bill, which was endorsed by the LB City Council and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger following opposition from LB's Port, the LB Area Chamber of Commerce and the CA Chamber of Commerce (the latter calling it a "job killer.")
Under LB's current City Charter, the Port of LB is governed by five Mayor chosen, Council-approved individuals who comprise a Board of Harbor Commissioners.
In September 2004, efforts by some City Councilmembers to use their budget approval authority to curtail Port lobbying against Council-approved policies prompted LB Harbor Commissioners to warn that they would reexamine a previously planned transfer of roughly $6 million in surplus Port funds to City Hall's Tidelands fund if Councilmembers didn't OK the Port's '05 budget (i.e. including lobbying) without changes. Councilmembers complied...and to date have not seriously revisited the issue. Councilmembers have directed a Council committees to begin receiving periodic reports on Port-related issues from Port representatives.
The new study linking air pollutants to fetal damage was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other private foundations. The research was conducted by scientists from the Columbia University Center for Children's Environmental Health. Study results will be published in the February issue of Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention.
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