A Chinese research group has produced research that appears to confirm what seems painfully obvious if you have ever lived in Beijing during the winter – environmental pollutants like coal smoke and pesticides can directly lead to birth defects. Reuters (via trust.org) reports:
The researchers studied 80 newborn babies and aborted fetuses with brain and spinal cord defects and found that their mothers’ placentas had significantly higher amounts of chemicals compared to placentas of babies without such birth defects.
Suspicions of a link between air pollution and birth defects have been circulating in the press for years, with even Chinese government officials speaking out about the issue, and this study – which focused on pregnant women in coal-heavy Shanxi province – seems to present even more alarming evidence:
Zhu and colleagues recruited pregnant women in four rural counties in northern Shanxi province where NTDs occur in 14 out of every 1,000 babies – far higher than the national average.
They analysed the placentas of 80 babies or aborted fetuses with NTDs and compared them to placentas of 50 babies without such defects.
Women whose placentas had higher than average levels of the PAH chemicals from burning coal were 4.5 times more likely to have babies with defects, while those with more than average levels of pesticides were around 3 times more likely to have babies with defects, the researchers found.
In April of this year, the government established a national center in Beijing to research and monitor birth defects, which, according to Xinhua, most commonly include "congenital heart disease, cleft lip and physical and intellectual disabilities" in China.
But true to form (and as if to save face for the motherland), the agency quotes an expert (Dai Yaohua, a senior researcher with the Beijing-based Capital Institute of Pediatrics and a counselor with the World Health Organization) as saying the "advent of the center does not necessarily imply that more children are being born with birth defects in China."
The Xinhua article also quotes Dai as saying that "the Ministry of Health has established a special network to collect data on congenital diseases" … and cites this initiative as a possible reason why more birth defects are being reported in China. In other words, it’s a classic "chicken and the egg" argument: Are more cases of birth defects being discovered in China simply because the issue is being more closely monitored, or is closer monitoring allowing the public to realize there are more cases of birth defects in China?
My bet is on the latter – particularly when other domestic experts are pointing out how "birth defects are now the single biggest killer of infants on the mainland” (Professor Hu Yali of Nanjing University, as quote in the Nanjing Morning Post, according to this site – VPN needed) and Shanxi just happens to be the province with the highest rate of birth defects in the country.
Elsewhere on the net a site called "junkscience" written by pro-industry/anti-environmentalist pundit and Fox News columnist Steve Milloy claims that a relatively small study size (80 cases of birth defects), "inconsistency of association among POPs ["persistent organic pollutants"], and the absence of credible studies linking POPs with NTDs ["neural tube defects"] despite generations of widespread exposures around the world call the conclusions of the recent Chinese study into question.
My utterly terrible academic record in just about every science class I took throughout grade school and college probably makes me the least qualified person on the planet to comment on this news, but common sense seems to dictate that like second-hand smoke, prolonged exposure to coal smoke and insecticides couldn’t possibly be good for pregnant women and their unborn babies. I could be wrong, of course, but it’s hard to conceive how thick, black, noxious plumes of coal smoke and pesticides (which have been known to kill wayward pets in Beijing, by the way) would not damage your system on some basic, molecular level.
Nevertheless, if there is any merit to be distilled from Milloy’s arguments, it’s simply that more research is needed to understand exactly how and to what extent China’s abysmal air-pollution is affecting its youngest and most vulnerable residents. Until then, if you’re pregnant or nursing, staying indoors as much as possible may not be so crazy of an idea after all.