Black Carbon Pollution Has Been Found Inside Women's Placentas

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Scientists have found evidence that fetuses may be exposed to black carbon, the tiny toxic particulate matter that results from burning fossil fuels and wildfires.

The study, published in Nature Communications Tuesday, found that black carbon particles actually reach the placenta. Scientists had suspected as much, based on research done on pregnant rabbits and cell cultures taken from pregnant women, but this study analyzes actual placentas after women have given birth. Inside the tissue—and on the fetal side of the placenta—scientists discovered these particles.

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The time we spend inside our mothers’ uteruses is in many ways when we’re most vulnerable. The exposures fetuses face may follow them into adulthood, a growing body of research shows. That’s why this new study is pretty damn concerning. Particulate matter can damage the lungs, heart, and brain in adults. What could it be doing to fetuses?

To find out, the researchers looked at the placenta from 20 non-smoking women who gave birth in the East-Limburg Hospital in Belgium. The scientists collected the placenta 10 minutes after the women gave birth to conduct biopsies. All women consented and answered a written questionnaire to gather lifestyle information (such as if they smoked, etc.).

The scientists examined how much residential air pollution the women were exposed to during pregnancy, based on where they lived. They found women with the highest exposure to black carbon saw more than double the number of particles in their placentas, on average, compared to women with the lowest exposure.

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The researchers warn that while their results are damning, further research is needed to see whether the particles actually cross from the placenta into the fetus. Unfortunately, the women who are often living closest to the facilities spewing this black carbon pollution into the air are low-income women or women of color. They can’t afford to wait years for another study—that may not even result in any change—while industry continues to potentially endanger their children.

This is why many environmental advocates want to see fossil fuel infrastructure gone ASAP. It’s not only worsening the climate crisis; it’s endangering public health. We don’t need another study to know that.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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