Early in my pregnancy I developed a bloodhound’s sense of smell: even the faintest of odors overwhelmed me. It’s a common phenomenon during the first trimester of pregnancy, yet my new nasal superpower took me by surprise—and forced me into an unwelcome awareness of the pollution that surrounds all of us. Car and truck exhaust, to my unusually acute nose, was pure poison. It made me recoil, hold my breath, gag, choke. My new super-nose could detect the smell all over the place—waiting at the bus stop in my quiet Seattle neighborhood, wafting through 5th floor downtown office windows, even at the park and in my own backyard. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the air I breathe really stinks.
And just as my pregnancy had heightened my sense of smell, it also intensified my concern about what was entering my body with every breath. The well being of a clump of tissue no bigger than a lima bean became my top priority—making me more concerned than ever about the purity of the food, water, and air that was nourishing both of us (or not).
Of course, the professional side of my brain had been thinking about the links between pollution and health for years. (Working at a sustainability think-tank will do that to you.) But pregnancy personalized the issues. It turned a hypothetical threat to the imagined families I held in my mind’s eye, into a very real one that affected my own life and my potential child’s future. My work at Sightline on climate and energy policy started to be more about my body and my family than simply about curbing climate change and stabilizing energy prices over the next decade. It’s about the air I’m breathing—and breathing for two—right now!
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Two thoughts struck me as particularly scary. First: this is the air we breathe all the time. It just happens that only first-trimester pregnant ladies (and perhaps dogs with their heads out car windows) get the full olfactory impact. Do we really know what air pollution does to our bodies? To embryos?
Second: we’re all incredibly complacent about what we breathe. Is it because we can’t smell it or see it most of the time? Do we wait for our cities to be as polluted as Bangkok or Los Angeles before we start to take action? (And, for that matter, are pregnant women in Bangkok and Los Angeles pounding down their elected officials’ doors, demanding cleaner air? As far as I know, they’re not).
Part of our complacency about air quality may stem from an unspoken belief that the health of a child is solely a mother’s personal responsibility. Mass-market books and magazines, for example, dwell on on a mother’s personal choices during pregnancy: alcohol and cigarettes, vitamins and diet. Pregnant women are advised to avoid household toxics like harsh cleaners, lead paint, or garden pesticides.
Yet very few books outline concerns that are beyond a mother’s individual control—concerns about toxic chemicals and particulate matter that pervade the air in our cities and suburbs. And fewer still remind us of the political actions we might take to demand safer air quality standards for fetuses, children, and adults alike.
So, the burden is on the mother. Not on the community that sets rules (or doesn’t) about air and water quality or holds accountable (or doesn’t) polluters that harm babies.
While some popular pregnancy books advise women who work around toxic fumes or spend their days literally in traffic—like tollbooth operators—to seek alternative work during their pregnancy, only a handful of specialized blogs, and a few books specifically oriented around science, biology, or toxics, examine the prenatal health ramifications of poor air quality for the rest of us—people who simply live and breathe (and procreate) in a world with cars and coal plants. And they paint a disturbing picture of the toxic cocktail we imbibe with every breath.
Terry Tamminen lays out the unappetizing recipe in his book Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction:
- Particulate matter—“large” particles of 10 microns or less and small ones of 2.5 microns or less pumped into the air by incomplete burning of petroleum fuels. (For context, a grain of salt is about 100 microns). These fine particles are especially toxic, causing respiratory ailments, cardiopulmonary disease, low birth weight, asthma, and lung cancer.
- Carbon monoxide—Colorless, odorless, and highly poisonous. CO robs blood of oxygen. When inhaled by pregnant women, CO can threaten fetal growth and mental development of the child.
- Volatile organic compounds—VOCs include substances that easily evaporate, hence the term volatile. The distinctive odor you notice when you pump gasoline is an example. The VOCs in petroleum products—including benzene, butadiene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—are known carcinogens.
- Ozone—Although ozone in the upper atmosphere shields Earth from the sun’s harmful radiation, high concentrations at ground level are a threat to human health, acting like an acid in the lungs, causing and aggravating asthma, harming the immune system, and causing fetal heart malfunctions.
- Nitrogen dioxide—the brownish haze over most big cities comes from NO2, a highly reactive organic gas that irritates the lungs and causes both bronchitis and pneumonia, among other adverse health effects.
- Lead—even though it was eliminated from most gasoline in the United States starting in the 1970s, lead continues to be used in aviation and other specialty fuels. And from all those years of leaded gasoline, the stuff that came out of cars as fuel exhaust still pollutes soil along our roadways, becoming readily airborne and easily inhaled. In men, lead reduces sperm count and creates abnormalities in what’s left. In women it can reduce fertility and cause miscarriages. As the brains of fetuses develop, lead exposure from the mother’s blood can result in significant learning disabilities.
Tamminen points to a study of thousands of Los Angeles-area expectant mothers conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles. Those exposed for as little as a month to high levels of smog (mostly ozone and carbon monoxide) were three times more likely to have babies with physical deformities, including cleft lips and palates and defective heart valves, when compared with national averages for birth defects. According to a study published in the Journal of Immunology, in the United States, up to 100,000 Americans will die each year from causes attributable to completely preventable smog.
To its credit, the popular pregnancy website BabyCenter did recently post about a study (by researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University) linking prenatal exposure to air pollution (in particular polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs) to children with lower IQs:
Fetal exposure to high levels of a common airborne pollutant compound seems to threaten the intellectual development of children, a new study suggests.
The finding is based on the experience of black and Dominican-American families living in the New York City area. Specifically, it indicates that high prenatal exposure to these compounds—automobile exhaust is one example—translates into lower IQ scores by the time a child reaches the age of 5 years.
No wonder city air makes me choke!
There are far bigger questions here than a woman’s personal choices about what to eat and drink. For example: Why is it we’ve let our air become toxic to fetuses? What steps can we take to change the status quo?
And that’s where climate and energy policy comes in. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions means ensuring cleaner air overall. It means we stop taking fossil fuel pollution for granted. It sparks policies to reduce vehicle emissions, and to develop the technologies that would do so—along with policies that focus on energy efficiency and clean energy alternatives. It encourages alternatives to motor vehicle transportation with investments in convenient transit options and better city planning.
I didn’t set out to write a post about why pregnant women should be up in arms. But I do feel that women of child-bearing age—and anyone, for that matter, who cares about healthy babies and kids— should stand up for what I think most of us assume are our basic rights, including clean air to breathe, air that doesn’t hurt us or our families.
But until pregnancy magazines, websites, and books start addressing the health effects of air pollution along with those of alcohol, anyone who cares about healthy children—and for that matter, a healthy, fully-functioning population—won’t be informed enough to be up in arms. It’s a pity because I imagine that if this demographic (isn’t it just about everybody?) did start demanding some policy changes, we’d see some movement. Because, as we’ve seen in other policy arenas, moms—as well as dads, aunts, grandparents, godparents—are political dynamite.