Babies lighter at birth due to proximity to chemical industry

Babies in an area with heavy chemical industry have a lower weight than the average at birth. Schoolchildren in such areas have worse lungs, while adults are more likely to take medication for cardiovascular disease. This is apparent from research by the Rotterdam Erasmus Medical Center into the influence of industrial air pollution on health.

The research was carried out by environmental epidemiologist Arnold Bergstra, who obtained his doctorate last month. He conducted the study in Zeeland in the vicinity of two important industrial areas: the Sloe area, near the city of Vlissingen, and the area along the Dutch part of the Terneuzen-Ghent canal. In those areas, the industry emits substances that can cause asthma, chronic lung disease and death. The study around the Sloe area was carried out in 2012, since then two factories and a coal-fired power station have been closed, improving the air quality in this area. The results can also be used for research in other areas, says Bergstra, such as the Rijnmond and around Tata Steel in IJmuiden.

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Contamination by address

The uniqueness of Bergstra’s research is that he looked explicitly at industry for his dissertation, and did not take other factors such as traffic into account. The level of detail is also striking: he accurately calculated the air pollution at address level.

The research shows that the more mothers are exposed to particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds during pregnancy, the lower the birth weight of their child. According to the research, 10 percent of the most highly exposed mothers in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen have an average of 75 grams lighter as a result of air pollution. According to the researcher, this weight reduction can be compared with second-hand smoke during pregnancy. Older children between the ages of seven and thirteen score worse on lung function tests. Adults are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases; when exposed to particulate matter and nitrogen oxide, they more often use medicines against cardiovascular diseases.

According to Bergstra, the average damage to health is not very large, but it can still have major effects on sensitive groups. “For children who already have poor lung function, the effect of industrial air pollution is expected to be clearly noticeable.”

Small effect, big impact

The same applies to reduced birth weight. Bergstra: “A weight reduction by an average of 75 grams is not impressive for a pediatrician. But it’s an average; and there are also babies with a greater reduction.” Moreover, despite a relatively small effect, the impact on public health is significant, as it concerns large groups of people.

Bergstra argues in favor of keeping the heavy chemical industry at a distance from local residents. A certain safe distance is probably around eight to ten kilometers. Bergstra also argues for more research. “For example, we know little about the effect of reduced birth weight on the development of the child later in life.”