California study finds link between air pollution and birth defects

Sunday, December 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ For years, scientists have known of a correlation between air quality and infant illnesses. Now for the first time a Southern California study links air pollution and birth defects.

The University of California, Los Angeles study shows that the harmful effects of dirty air can extend even into the womb, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.

``Smog can harm the health of babies,'' said Beate Ritz, an epidemiologist at UCLA's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health who conducted the study.

``This should make us pause. Air pollution doesn't just impact asthmatics and old people at the end of life, but it can affect people at the beginning of their life, and that can disadvantage people throughout their life.''

The study, to be published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, is scheduled to be released Dec. 28.

More than a dozen studies in the United States, Brazil, Europe, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan have linked smog to low birth weight, premature births, stillbirths and infant deaths.

But the latest research found that women exposed to high levels of ozone and carbon monoxide were three times more likely than others to have babies with cleft lips and palates and defective heart valves.

Researchers looked at thousands of pregnant women in the Los Angeles area from 1987 to 1993, and compared those living in areas with relatively dirty air to those living in cleaner areas.

Virtually the entire study area, bounded roughly by San Bernardino, Santa Ana and Santa Clarita, met federal standards for carbon monoxide, and much of the region complied with ozone requirements.

Scientists found that the greatest risk occurs during the second month of pregnancy, when a fetus develops most of its organs and much of its facial structure.

Most of the studies about smog and babies came after the Clinton administration set new federal limits for ozone and microscopic particles.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say that before those standards can be strengthened, more research is needed to determine which pollutants are most harmful and at what stage of pregnancy they do the most damage.