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New research shows particulate matter from burning fossil fuels can accumulate in the placenta of pregnant women. Is this the information we need to convince us to stop burning fossil fuels?

Fossil Fuels

Researchers Find Particulates In Placenta Of Pregnant Women

New research shows particulate matter from burning fossil fuels can accumulate in the placenta of pregnant women. Is this the information we need to convince us to stop burning fossil fuels?

Whether its coal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, wood or any other form of fossil fuel, burning any of them produces fine particulate matter, defined as particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These particles are so small they are able to cross directly into the human bloodstream in the lungs and can contribute to pulmonary and cardiac disease.

particulate matter

Image credit: EPA

At the European Respiratory Society international congress in Paris on September 16, researchers from the UK will present new evidence that these particulates actually migrate to the placenta of pregnant women. “It is a worrying problem. There is a massive association between air pollution a mother breathes in and the effect it has on the fetus,”  Dr Lisa Miyashita of Queen Mary University in London tells The Guardian.

The research has not provided a definitive answer as to whether the particulate matter can travel from the placenta to a fetus, but if they can get that far, there’s a good chance they can. “We do not know whether the particles we found could also move across into the fetus, but our evidence suggests this is indeed possible,” says Dr Norrice Liu,  a member of the research team. “We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby’s body to have an adverse effect, because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact on the fetus.”

Professor Mina Gaga of the Athens Chest Hospital in Greece, says, “This research suggests a possible mechanism of how babies are affected by pollution while being theoretically protected in the womb. This should raise awareness amongst doctors and the public regarding the harmful effects of air pollution in pregnant women. We need stricter policies for cleaner air to reduce the impact of pollution on health worldwide because we are already seeing a new population of young adults with health issues.”

Indeed, a recent study involving 500,000 children indicates air pollution can have a significant negative impact on cognitive functioning. A study in 2016 found toxic nanoparticles lodged in human brains.

Framing The Fossil Fuel Debate

We all know that how a debate is framed is often as important as the debate itself — maybe more so. People buy the packaging, not the product. As the debate over climate change rages — with people on both sides accusing the other of skullduggery, bias, and outright lies — maybe it is time to stop arguing about carbon taxes, carbon capture, climate change, melting sea ice, and more frequent forest fires.

Perhaps instead the emphasis should be on ending the world’s addiction to fossil fuels not because of what they do to the environment but because of what they do to us and our children. In one respect, we are all like the monkeys Volkswagen used to conduct diesel exhaust research. Stick ’em in a closed container, pump in some diesel exhaust, and see what happens. Except in this case, we are the monkeys, both figuratively and literally.

Might people be more receptive to the idea that fossil fuels are bad if we can show they are a clear and present danger to our health and that of our children? If the inevitable byproducts of combustion are evident in the placenta, isn’t that enough to get us to forsake fossil fuels, especially at a time when renewable energy and electric vehicles are becoming more affordable every day?

No need for government regulations, rebates, or quotas. No interference in the free market. No endless debates about fracking, methane leaks, or drilling in the Arctic. Simply educate people so they understand the threat fossil fuels pose to them being able to live to a ripe old age and have healthy children. Then let nature take its course, so to speak. As always, if the people will lead, their leaders will follow. Spread the word.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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