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Clean Air Day 2021: RCOG calls for stronger targets on air pollution to protect the health of pregnant women and their babies

News 17 June 2021

To mark Clean Air Day 2021, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is calling for the UK government to show strong international leadership and take ambitious action on air pollution. Most urgently, this must include a legally binding commitment to achieve World Health Organization (WHO) guideline limits on particulate matter by 2030 at the latest.

In a position statement published by the RCOG, the impact of air pollution on our health throughout our lives is outlined, including the consistent evidence that this harm can start even before birth. Research from the UK identifies links between prenatal exposures to air pollution and small reductions in lung function during childhood, a higher risk of term low birth weight, and adverse effects on fetal growth. There is also evidence internationally that air pollution may be linked with reduced fertility and miscarriage risk, autism in children, and an increased risk of pre-eclampsia for pregnant women.

One significant step to reducing air pollution is an overall reduction in road transport. The RCOG is calling for an expansion of initiatives that reduce traffic in the most polluted areas, alongside ambitious and equitable investment to support and promote active, green and shared travel across and between towns and cities. If these initiatives are to work for everybody, the voices of women and their families must be heard during planning processes and consultations.

Dr Victoria Bills, Consultant Obstetrician and Specialist in Fetal Medicine, said:

“In my clinical practice I am seeing more and more women who are worried about the impact the air they breathe is having on them and their baby. It is difficult for an individual to reduce their exposure to pollutants – people often don’t have the luxury of choosing where they live or what job they do – and this is why we need local, national and international action to truly protect our health from these pollutants.

“Although the increases in risk discussed are statistically significant, we want to reassure women there is still only a small risk to the individual. There are other positive steps we encourage women to take to minimise the overall risk and ensure a healthy pregnancy; these include maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, keeping active and correctly managing existing lung conditions such as asthma.

“Everyone can take steps to reduce their own contribution to air pollution such as using cars less often or not at all.”

Dr Ranee Thakar, Senior Vice President for Global Health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:

“The Environment Bill provides the perfect opportunity for the UK government to implement ambitious, legally-binding targets. We strongly suggest the country’s leaders look at the evidence presented and take significant action to safeguard the health of pregnant women and their babies, and that of future generations. We therefore urge all MPs, and Members of the Lords, to push for the UK to commit to achieving at least WHO guideline limits on particulate matter by 2030.

“Commitments to tackle the issue must be coupled with robust plans to ensure that targets are met, as well as the flexibility to rapidly consider and introduce new regulations in the face of emerging evidence, particularly around currently unregulated pollutants.”

“The RCOG is also concerned by the racial and ethnic inequities in exposure to pollution, which is particularly identified around London schools. Understanding how inequitable exposure to air pollution may exacerbate existing health inequities among racialised groups must be a research priority, alongside action and research focusing on the most clinically vulnerable groups and the heavier toll on deprived communities.

ENDS 

For media enquiries, please contact the RCOG press office on +44 (0)20 7045 6773 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk.

Notes to Editor

Read the RCOG policy position statement: Outdoor air pollution and pregnancy in the UK

Clean Air Day resources for pregnant women: How does air pollution affect me as an expectant mother?

The RCOG is a member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, an alliance of 21 health organisations, including many Medical and Nursing Royal Colleges, Faculties of Health, the British Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, and the Lancet.