New study explores how pollutants indoors impact child health

Pregnant black woman hugging her tummy

Scientists at Swansea University have launched a major study to discover how everyday pollutants impact the development and health of fetuses and children.

Pollutants from wood burning stoves, clothing, cleaning products and cooking can build up indoors, especially over winter, alongside outdoor pollution such as traffic fumes.

In the UK, people spend on average 90% of their time indoors, so research in this area is key to understanding the connection between pollution and human health.

Air pollution impact

Previous studies have shown air pollution can impact the size of babies and premature birth.

Scientists are now working on the ‘Relating Environment-use Scenarios in Pregnancy or Infanthood and Resulting airborne material Exposures to child health outcomes’ (RESPIRE) study.

The RESPIRE study is the first to track how the function of different organs such as the lungs and brain is impacted by pollution in:

  • the home
  • work
  • other indoor places we visit.

UK wide collaboration

Professor Cathy Thornton, Professor of Human Immunology at Swansea University, said:

Our UK wide collaboration will be the first to explore how pregnant women might respond differently to air pollution as a way of understanding the health consequences for their children.

Alongside this we will work with pregnant women and their families, the wider public, local and national government as well as businesses to monitor indoor and outdoor air pollution exposures of pregnant women and relate these to later health outcomes of the child.

This ambitious approach is intended to inform policy and the development of interventions including the development of simple tools to quickly monitor the success on an intervention.

Air pollution exposure

The study is designed to determine how air pollution exposures of pregnant women pass to the baby and affect organ development, leading to poor health in childhood.

To conduct the study, biological samples will be obtained from pregnant volunteers at various trimesters.

Scientists will then analyse the effects of airborne materials on the samples.

These will include:

  • nasal samples as a source from the airways that is safe to use in pregnancy
  • peripheral and umbilical cord blood
  • placenta
  • sperm.

Chemical and biological cocktail

Samples will be exposed to PM2.5 or fine particulate matter.

This is a cocktail of chemical and biological contaminants including house dust and volatile organic compounds, such as the chemicals found in cleaning products.

The samples will be exposed to PM2.5 or fine particulate matter alone and in combination, including with other airborne materials such as pollen and viruses.

The team will also measure natural exposures in the homes of pregnant women, how women respond to this environment and then follow the health of their babies as they grow up.

Four-year project, £3.4 million funding

The four-year project has received £3.4 million funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through its Strategic Priorities Fund clean air programme.

The programme aims to increase multidisciplinary research in key areas of air quality including human health.

Professor Lucy Chappell, Chief Executive of NIHR, said:

I’m delighted that NIHR is building on its strong track record in funding air pollution research by partnering with UK Research and Innovation to co-fund the RESPIRE study.

This project forms part of a powerful group of four co-funded interdisciplinary consortia tackling the health impacts of changing indoor and outdoor emissions and exposure patterns.

Millions of lives affected

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, UKRI’s Clean Air Champion, said:

Poor air quality affects millions of lives, but the impact of pollutants indoors is little understood.

Funding research in this area is a key priority of UK Research and Innovation.

By sharing our findings with local and national government, business, charities and the public, we hope this research will reduce the ill-effects of pregnancy air pollution exposures on child health.

Clean air programme

The clean air programme is jointly delivered by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Met Office, and partners include:

  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
  • Innovate UK
  • Medical Research Council
  • National Physical Laboratory
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council
  • Department of Health and Social Care.

Further information

Three additional projects for the UKRI clean air programme were announced in July last year: exploring how air pollution in indoor spaces affects human health

Top image:  Credit: Prostock-Studio, Getty Images

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