Prenatal Care and Air Pollution Study

(KUTV) SALT LAKE CITY – Air quality is a big worry here in Utah, especially during the winter months. Researchers at the University of Utah are looking into how air pollution affects unborn babies.

"Air pollution in general, there are a lot of health consequences that really we're just starting to understand," said Dr. Jeanette Chin, obstetrician, University Hospital.

It's not just affecting your own health, Dr. Chin is investigating a unique anomaly that happened back in the 1980s involving air pollution and pre-terms births.

The Geneva Steel Mill plant, no longer operating now, was once a bustle of steel processing and making. The facility, founded during World War II, shut down for 13 months for a strike in 1986.

Researchers looking at local hospital records in Utah County noticed an interesting occurrence. While the plant was shut down, the number of pre-term births declined, and when it opened back up, the numbers went back up.

Previous studies have indicated that air pollution can affect fetuses while the mother is pregnant. Now, Dr. Chin is using the discovery from the Geneva plant’s temporary closure to investigate the long term health consequences of air pollution.

"We're going to look at the differences between kids who is in-utero, when the mill was opening, when it was operating and when it was closed," Dr. Chin explained.

She said they plan on using the Utah Data Population database to look at hundreds of women who would have been pregnant while the steel mill was closed down, and who also became pregnant after the mill re-opened, to compare what happened to the children 27 years later.

This research is coming about thanks to a SEED grant from the U's program for Air Quality, Health and Society. Dr. Chin is one of 6 University of Utah researchers awarded grants totaling $165,000 – all investigating air pollution.

"It's important because we need to understand our source of pollution so we can develop appropriate strategies to address the effect of pollution," says Kerry Kelly, associate director of the U's program for Air Quality, Health and Society.

Dr. Chin says as an obstetrician at the University Hospital, she has pregnant women asking her about air quality all the time.

"When you hear the advice on the radio that says you shouldn't be outside exercising today, kids aren't let out to play on bad air quality days, same thing for pregnant women to be cautious on being outside," she said.

The long term consequences to air pollution are still unknown. Hopefully this new research will shed light on whether even in the womb, effects from pollution are being felt years later. However, the connection to pre-term births alone indicates that a baby exposed in the womb could have respiratory problems, asthma and other long-term issues.

"The better we can understand that, the better we can advocate for change," Dr. Chin said.

By Lana Medina

(Copyright 2014 Sinclair Broadcasting Group)