Air Pollution May Harm Babies Even Before They Are Born

Hyde Park is the better place to exercise Credit Michael Kemp  Alamy Stock

The research adds to a "growing body of evidence showing the negative impacts of urban air pollution on cardiovascular and respiratory health" according to Imperial College London - one of the institutions to have participated in the research.

The results suggest that poor air quality can cancel out exercise benefits and demonstrate the health impacts of even short-term exposure to air pollution.

Walking is the sort of low impact exercise recommended by the NHS for older people to improve their cardiovascular fitness, but the study found that the impact of air pollution negated this. Then they amassed data on birth weights of 540,365 babies born during those years to women who lived in those areas.

Researchers estimated average monthly concentrations of traffic-related pollutants by looking at the mother's home address at the time of birth. Average day and night-time road traffic noise levels were also estimated.

The study, in the Lancet medical journal, warned breathing in pollution from diesel cars is particularly risky.

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The researchers concluded that to overcome the issue of traffic related air pollution, and reduce health risks for the next generation, immediate, broad, multi-sector action is needed.

The project was also supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department of Health.

Research in the journal The Lancet has found that the dose of air pollution older people received when taking a two hour walk in a congested city street stiffens the arteries and impaired lung function.

According to the study carried out by Imperial College London researchers, exposure to road traffic air pollution in London during pregnancy is linked to an increased risk of low-birth weight babies born at full term.

The study tested 119 people aged over sixty, 40 of whom were healthy, 40 with a medically-stable lung condition, COPD, and 39 with stable ischaemic heart disease. Volunteers walked for two hours midday at one of two London locations: in a relatively quiet part of Hyde Park or along a busy section of Oxford Street, where pollution-including black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter from diesel exhaust fumes-regularly exceeds air quality limits set by the World Health Organization.

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"People like outdoor exercise".

Environmental measurements were also collected, to track pollution levels and volunteers' exposure.

The study found everyone in the park group benefited, with lung capacity improving within an hour and persisting for 24 hours.

Air pollution levels were monitored before and during their walk, and each participant's lung capacity and arterial stiffness was measured before and after.

Blood flow increased, blood pressure fell and arteries became 24 per cent less stiff. Eighty participants had mild heart or lung disease.

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This effect was reduced when walking along Oxford Street, the researchers added, with a maximum change in arterial stiffness of 4.6% for healthy volunteers, 16% for those with COPD and 8.6% for heart disease patients.

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