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Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may increase newborns’ risk of obesity

Experts worry about the long-term health effects of these pollutants

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Recent studies have highlighted the health risks associated with both pregnant women and children’s exposure to air pollution. 

Now, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder have found that women who are exposed to air pollution during pregnancy may have an increased risk of bearing children who struggle with obesity. The team explained that air pollution was linked with excess weight gain, which can last through childhood and adulthood. 

“Higher rates of obesity among certain groups in our society are not simply a byproduct of personal choices like exercise and calories in, calories out,” said researcher Tanya Alderete. “It’s more complicated than that. This study and others suggest it can also relate to how much of an environmental burden one carries.” 

Identifying health risks

The researchers compared health records for more than 120 mother-infant pairs with air pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality System. The team was primarily concerned with the infants’ weight gain and where they stored their fat. 

“We found that greater exposure to prenatal ambient air pollution was associated with greater changes in weight and adiposity, or body fatness, in the first six months of life,” said researcher William Patterson.

This was true for all of the infants, though the researchers found that male and female babies distributed weight gain differently. While male infants had more belly fat, female infants tended to gain more fat around their waists. 

The researchers explained that exposure to air pollution can heighten the body’s inflammatory response, which ultimately impacts other bodily functions and processes and leads to excessive weight gain. While the team plans to do more research in this area, they said that exposure to air pollution in utero can impact infants’ DNA make-up and affect the health of future generations

“This period, either during pregnancy or shortly after birth, is a critical window of development and adverse exposures can program the infant to have a host of problems in later life,” Patterson said. 

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