New Research Links Climate Change to Pregnancy Risks
Thu, April 22, 2021

New Research Links Climate Change to Pregnancy Risks


The impacts of climate change are projected to worsen significantly in the coming years. While many countries have set goals to limit the increasing greenhouse gas emissions, these are not enough to keep all of us safe. The climate crisis is already reaching its tipping points, so even future generations are affected. Now, new studies show that pregnant mothers and their unborn babies will be facing risks due to this climatological mess. 

Shortened Pregnancies

A 2019 study published in Nature Climate Change revealed how pregnant women are affected by the increasing extreme heat due to the climate crisis. While the exact biological mechanism by which heat impacts pregnancy isn’t clear, researchers formed multiple theories. They believe that heat can lead to cardiovascular stress and may trigger an increase in levels of the hormone oxytocin. 

“There may even be a third cause, which is loss of sleep. The minimum temperature on a hot day occurs at night, but it can still be hot enough to disrupt sleep, and that might be an important avenue to early birth,” Alan Barreca, an associate professor at UCLA’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability, said.

These causes can, unfortunately, have a direct impact on human gestational time. According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, the researchers created a dataset after analyzing daily temperature and county-by-county birth rates across the US in a two-decade window from 1969 to 1988. The findings showed that there were 25,000 early births recorded caused by high temperatures annually. 

The researchers found out that the birth rate per 100,000 women increased by 0.97 on days when temperatures reached or exceeded 32.2 degrees Celsius. These premature births are correlated to lower birth weight and even potential cognitive development problems later in life. 



Pregnancy Risks Due to Climate Crisis

It’s already well known that climate change has been forcing temperatures higher, raising humidity, and worsening air pollution. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found out that these can impact pregnant women. The investigation identified 57 studies since 2007 showing a significant link between air pollution and heat exposure and the risk of pre-term birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. 

Co-author Bruce Bekkar, a retired obstetrician, said they wanted to talk about the impacts of the climate crisis that are common and widespread but rarely attributed to climate change. “We are already having generations weakened from birth. There’s just no way we can allow that to happen, and I would like to see not just mothers and their husbands and kids show up at council meetings, but I’d like to see many more health professionals involved in calling for legislation that reduces the ongoing and really pretty scary health burdens of the climate crisis,” he said.

According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, the findings show the toll on babies’ health will grow as climate change worsens. The team found out that high temperatures were tied to an increased risk of premature birth ranging from 8.6% to 21%. For every temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius in the week before delivery, there’s a 6% greater likelihood of stillbirth between May and September. 



The researchers also examined the effects of pregnancy from greater exposure to two types of air pollution: ozone and tiny particles called PM 2.5. The findings showed that both are linked with preterm births, low birth weights, and stillbirths. One study, for instance, found out that high exposure to air pollution during the final trimester of pregnancy was associated with a 42% increase in the risk of stillbirth.

Climate change was also found to be an urgent threat to women’s health, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. According to The Guardian, an independent news organization that investigates, interrogates, and exposes the actions of those in power, pregnant women and developing fetuses are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These include cardiac disease, respiratory disease, mental health, and exposure to infectious diseases.

Co-author Nathaniel DeNicola, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Science, said that premature birth and low birth weight can have consequences that last a lifetime. These can affect brain development and vulnerability to disease. “This really does set the stage for an entire generation,” Dr. DeNicola said.



Black Moms Are Particularly At Risk

The study revealed that pregnant women of color and their babies are affected at a much higher rate than the population at large. The findings showed that black mothers are 2.4 times more likely to have children with low birth weight than white women. Another analysis also found out that the risk of stillbirth was as much as twice as great for black mothers as for whites across a number of wealthy countries.

“We already know that these pregnancy outcomes are worse for black women. It’s even more exacerbated by these exposures,” co-author Rupa Basu, the chief of the air and climate epidemiological section for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California, said.

The researchers discovered two studies that showed racial disparities in the number of stillbirths. The findings add to growing research that proves black mothers’ vulnerability to heat and air pollution was likely the result of several systemic problems. Basu explained that African-Americans not only are more likely to live close to power plants and other sources of air pollution but are also less likely to have air conditioning in their homes, afford the higher electrical bills, or live in neighborhoods with green spaces that can help keep temperatures down.

The authors added that minority communities tend to have less access to medical help and not receive equal levels of treatment. “There might not be as much care given to a woman of color versus a white woman,” Basu said.

Catherine Garcia Flowers, a field organizer in Houston for Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group, said that the findings only prove why governments need to tighten regulations against air pollution. “This is a moment of reckoning for racial injustice and health disparities. Doing nothing about air pollution, which so clearly has a greater impact on Black Americans, is racism in action,” she said.