Toxic air pollution particles have been found in the lungs, livers and brains of unborn babies, long before they have taken their first breath. Researchers said their “groundbreaking” discovery was “very worrying”, as the gestation period of foetuses is the most vulnerable stage of human development.
Thousands of black carbon particles were found in each cubic millimetre of tissue, which were breathed in by the mother during pregnancy and then passed through the bloodstream and placenta to the foetus.
The particles are made of soot from the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, homes and factories and cause inflammation in the body, as well as carrying toxic chemicals. The study was conducted with non-smoking mothers in Scotland and Belgium, in places with relatively low air pollution.
“We have shown for the first time that black carbon nanoparticles not only get into the first and second trimester placenta, but then also find their way into the organs of the developing foetus,” said Prof Paul Fowler, at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
“What is even more worrying is that these particles also get into the developing human brain,” he said. “This means that it is possible for these nanoparticles to directly interact with control systems within human foetal organs and cells.”