A recent collaborative study between University of Texas-Austin and Peking University researchers published earlier this month linked air pollutants and pesticides to a 450 percent increase in risk for birth defects.
The primary pesticides responsible for the risk increase are endosulfan and lindane, which are used for agricultural purposes. In the U.S., these pesticides have only recently been banned, but for other nations around the world, their use is still common.
Researchers also found causal links between birth defects and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a noxious pollutant released from fossil fuel combustion. Birth defects from these pollutants include spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. Anencephaly is the absence of a large part of the brain and skull.
Coal is an extremely cheap and efficient source of energy, therefore it is the primary source of fuel in China, the location where the research was conducted. “This is a region where they mine and burn a lot of coal,” says Finnell. “Many people cook with coal in their homes. The air is often black. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to say that maybe there’s something in there that isn’t good for babies.”
Every year about 3,000 pregnancies in the United States are complicated by neural tube defects, which result in spina bifida and anencephaly . Many other congenital conditions, including autism, may one day prove to be related to environmental pollutants. This research comes at a critical time in the U.S. as the debate continues about the overly burdensome regulatory pressure placed on many industries. If left up to individual state governments, air pollution regulation in some states may not be as restrictive as others. This poses a serious problem, as air pollutants released from a state with no regulatory framework can travel downwind and reach a state with stringent regulations.
The study published in late August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the result of a more than decade long collaboration between Finnell and a team of researchers from a province in northern China. “Our advanced industrialized societies have unleashed upon us a lot of pollutants,” says Richard Finnell. Researchers have long suspected that air pollutants have caused birth defects and other human health impacts, and now the data is there to substantiate those suspicions.