Can poor air quality affect pregnancy?

The below article talks about the effects of poor air quality on pregnancy, the sources of poor air quality and what needs to be avoided, and some frequently asked questions in relation to air quality and pregnancy care. 

Can poor air quality affect your pregnancy?

Unfortunately yes, poor air quality can have an impact on your pregnancy and can instigate long-term health conditions in the child or the parent. Poor air quality has been found to cause low birth weight, stillbirth, pre-term labor, autism, obesity, fertility issues, developmental disabilities amongst other health hazards. 

There are various sources of exposure and pregnant individuals need to take adequate measures to reduce the impact of air pollution on their health as well as the health of the developing child. 

Air pollution and air quality

Poor air quality due to increasing pollution is an extensively studied field. The effects of exposure to bad air quality are inevitable and researchers have taken up various measures to identify the different impacts air-borne pollutants could have. Air pollution has been found to impact human health severely and if exposed to it on a long-term basis, it could cause irreversible damage including respiratory conditions and neuro system damages amongst other illnesses. 

Research into air pollution in the top 30 cities in the world shows that Indian cities hold the first 21 positions and that in 2019, approximately 1.67 million deaths were attributed to long-term exposure to poor air quality. The long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution caused heart attacks, chronic lung diseases, strokes, along with neonatal diseases which were accelerated due to the poor air quality (Hadley S., 2020). 

Various countries have taken measures to ensure clean air. For example, cities like Birmingham and Madrid aim to create “clean air zones” by enforcing strict regulations within the inner-city borders, China has acknowledged the need to speed up the construction and usage of electric vehicles to ensure that decent levels of air quality can be maintained in the country, Bangladesh high court has put together several directives aimed at ministries across the country to take actions to counter the effects of air pollution on its citizens (Hadley S., 2020).

How does poor air quality impact your pregnancy?

Air pollution affects the health of the developing child and the carrying parent, especially if the pollutants are capable of entering the bloodstream. This would eventually lead the pollutant to the placenta and create a negative impact on the health of the placenta and the overall development of the baby. 

The major contributor to health hazards during pregnancy stemming from poor air quality can be traced back to particle pollution- a combination of toxic liquid and solid airborne contaminants. These particles are capable of entering the bloodstream and have been found to cause lung cancer. Exposure to these pollutants can cause inflammation and irritation to the skin, eyes, lungs, and throat. 

The effects of air pollution on the growing child depends on 3 elements (Villines Z., 2020), namely – 

  1. At what stage of growth the baby is exposed to the pollutant 
  2. The time period of exposure and the volume of the pollutant during this time
  3. The characteristic of the pollutant 

Studies have found that long-term exposure to poor air quality during pregnancy can cause premature births, low birth weights, and stillbirths. A study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) showed that air pollution leads to approximately 16,000 premature births per year, in the country (IQAir, n.d.).  

The most common air pollutant is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and they have been linked to causing risks of premature births, low birth weights, and death. PAHs have also been found to contribute to developmental disabilities like autism and could trigger obesity in kids. 

A 2015 study conducted on children found that the higher levels of prenatal exposure to PAHs have caused a reduction in white matter in the left hemispheres of their brain. The decimation of white matter in the left hemisphere of the brain causes slower cognitive processing and triggers behavioral issues. Studies conducted post their births with the help of brain scans at age 5, show that postnatal exposure to PAHs negatively impacts the development of white matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area of the brain usually helps with concentration, reasoning, judgment, and problem-solving ability in humans (IQAir, n.d.). 

Sources of exposure to poor air quality

Air pollution and its effects can be seen globally across rural and urban areas. Exposure to poor air quality can occur indoors or outdoors and some of the sources are the following:

  • Smoke and fumes from vehicles, factories, fires, power plants, burning waste, heating systems, firecrackers, etc. 
  • Smog from indoor or outdoor fire sources
  • Tobacco smoke from primary usage or second-hand exposure
  • Burning fuel sources at close quarters like coal, oil, and wood
  • Occupational exposure such as paint fumes, varnish, automobile fumes, etc. 
  • Chemicals from cleaning agents, pesticides, paints, etc. 
  • Exposure from long-term pollutant sources like asbestos or lead paint
  • Allergens, mold spores, dander, pollen, etc. 

Prolonged exposure to poor air quality could translate to the following physical symptoms – coughing, wheezing, irritation and inflammation of eyes/ throat/skin, respiratory difficulties, chronic fatigue, breathlessness, diminished lung capacity, etc. If any of these symptoms are observed in pregnant individuals, it is best to consult a medical professional for help and counsel. 

Effects of poor air quality

Premature Births

A premature or a preterm birth occurs when a baby is delivered before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Pregnant individuals residing in polluted areas are more likely to experience preterm births. Preterm birth increases the risk of other conditions such as low birth weight, underdeveloped respiratory systems, or early death of the child shortly after birth. A 2019 study shows a correlation between air pollutants like ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and nitrogen dioxide; and pre-term labor. 

The study found that usually, the health effects stemming from long-term exposure to poor air quality show up in subsequent pregnancies as well (Villines Z., 2020). While there is no study that shows a direct majority correlation between air pollutants and pre-term labor, it has been found to have a prevalent stake in the subject.

Low Birth Weight

A healthy baby delivered is 6 to 9 pounds at 38 to 40 weeks. Babies born under 5 pounds eight ounces are considered to be of low birthweight (APA, n.d.). Exposure to toxic airborne pollutants can disrupt a baby’s development, causing them to be born with lower body weight. This could mean they have underdeveloped respiratory systems and bodies. Low birth weight is a major risk causing development delays, severe health issues, subsequent death. 

On average, 1 out of every 12 babies in the US is born underweight and this could be mostly traced back to higher than usual exposure to poor air quality (APA, n.d.). 


Stillbirth refers to the death of a baby after much progress into the pregnancy, usually after 20 weeks. A 2018 study conducted records a higher risk of stillbirth due to an increase in exposure to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. The study reports that the most susceptible time period for pregnant individuals to experience a stillbirth was during their third trimester (Yang S., 2018). 


A Havard study found that pregnant individuals exposed to high levels of particulate matter pollution during their third trimesters which twice more likely to deliver a child with autism. This was extremely prevalent amongst pregnant individuals and babies that lived near highways where exposure to particulate matter was the highest. The same study found that exposure to similar levels of pollution during the earlier periods of pregnancy does not cause the same result (APA, n.d.). Studies have also shown that air pollutants can cause inflammation to the brain of a fetus and could affect neurodevelopment (Hou C. Y., 2019)


Air pollution causes respiratory difficulties, and asthma is the most common after-effect to health due to air pollution. In pregnant individuals, asthma can be a dangerous condition as this could trigger preeclampsia –  a condition where blood pressure increases and decreases the functioning of the liver and kidneys. Untreated asthma can impede the development of a fetus, cause premature births and low birth weight. 

Research has also discovered that exposure to high levels of air pollution during pregnancy can trigger asthma much later into the child’s life as these pollutants can breach the placenta walls and deposit directly into the child’s system (APA, n.d.). 

Fertility Problems

Research conducted over the years shows that air pollution has a correlation to lower fertility rates and on rare occasions could lead to miscarriages as well. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are some preventative measures to reduce the impacts of air pollution during pregnancy?

Some preventative measures include:

  • Periodically check air quality forecasts to ensure that you stay indoors during peak hours of poor air quality. 
  • Limit your exposure to poor air quality especially during traveling or being in traffic.
  • Wear masks to reduce the intake of airborne pollutants into your bloodstream through the respiratory system
  • Wear protective glasses or sunglasses to protect your eyes from long-term exposure to air pollution as pollutants can enter your body through your eyes as well
  • Using alternatively fueled items such as hand-powered or electrically powered devices. 
  • If you have been diagnosed with asthma, make sure to carry your inhaler at all times and make a note to stay away from heavily polluted areas
  • Stay away from tobacco smoke and ban indoor smoking.
  • Ensure proper indoor air quality through proper ventilation and exhaust fans, or by installing an air purifier. 
  • Get rid of unwanted chemicals such as strong cleaning agents, paints, air fresheners, hairsprays, varnishes, etc. 
  • Use natural products wherever and whenever possible, especially for cleaning and maintenance purposes
  • Ensure that all ventilation systems are periodically monitored and cleaned, this also includes changing or cleaning the filters in your air purifier
  • Have periodical assessments of indoor air quality with help from consulting professionals from an environmental monitoring company 
  • Get air purifying plants as they are a natural and eco-friendly solution to cleaning the air and producing fresh oxygen
  • Invest in air quality monitors, sensors, or alarms that can measure indoor air quality at all times and alert you when the air quality is poor or when a certain pollutant’s concentration has increased

Can poor air quality affect the pregnant individual?

Yes, poor air quality can affect any individual and cause severe health hazards including neuro system damage, respiratory conditions, heart attacks, vision loss, amongst other debilitating effects. The best way to ensure reduced impacts of air pollution is to exercise preventative measures and reduce exposure to poor air quality. 

How do I know when the air quality is good or bad? 

The above image has been sourced from LiveWell’s fact sheet for pregnant individuals. It shows you the safe levels of air quality and what are some activities that could be done or need to be avoided during these time periods of poor air quality (LiveWell, 2015). 

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

Does air quality affect running?

What is meant by ‘stale air in lungs’?

Can poor Air Quality cause Allergies?


American Pregnancy Association (APA). (n.d.). How air pollution impacts pregnancy. 

Hadley S. (2020, December 21). Air pollution is causing permanent damage to eye health. 

Hou C. Y. (2019, September 23). Pregnant Mom’s Air Pollution Exposure May Affect Babies’ Health. The Scientist.  

IQAir. (2021, July 7). The alarming truth about air pollution and pregnancy. 

LiveWell. (2015). Air Quality and Pregnancy. Fact Sheet for Patients and Families. 

Villines Z. (2020, October 29). Can air pollution affect pregnancy outcomes? 

Yang S., Tan Y., Mei H., Wang F., Li N., Zhao J., Zhang Y., Qian Z., Chang J. J., Syberg K. M., Peng A., Mei H., Zhang D., Zhang Y., Xu S., Li Y., Zheng T., & Zhang B. (2018). Ambient air pollution the risk of stillbirth: A prospective birth cohort study in Wuhan, China. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health. 221(3). pp.502-509.   



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