Could exposure to air pollution during pregnancy increase the chances of women giving birth to children with cleft lip and palate? Recent research by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) in partnership with surgeons, researchers and Operation Smile, indicates a definite link.

What causes cleft lip or palate?

Cleft lip/palate is one of the five most common congenital birth disorders in South Africa. It happens in the early weeks of pregnancy when the bone and tissue of the baby’s upper jaw, nose and mouth fuse to form the roof of the mouth and the upper lip. A cleft lip or palate occurs when the tissue does not join together completely, leaving a gap.

Babies born with cleft conditions often have difficulty feeding, which can cause malnutrition and even death. Since the death certificate lists the cause of death as malnutrition, accurate statistics are hard to come by. Untreated cleft lip or palate can also lead to speech impediments, dental problems, bullying and social isolation.

Air pollution

In some cases, cleft conditions may be genetic (hereditary). Taking certain medications during pregnancy and poor prenatal nutrition may also be causes. More recently, environmental factors such as air pollution have been identified as increasing the risk of a child being born with a cleft.

Dr Caradee Wright, Chief Specialist Scientist at the SAMRC’s Environment and Health Research Unit, said, “Air pollution levels are known to be high in South Africa. Domestic fuel burning, coal-fired power stations, traffic, mining and industry all contribute to the problem. We wanted to explore whether a mother’s exposure to air pollution affected her baby’s risk of cleft lip and palate.”

Dr Wright’s research was based on 2515 cases of children born with cleft conditions countrywide. Where their mothers lived during pregnancy correlated to various ‘hotspot’ clusters – areas with higher concentrations of smoke and dust particles in the air. There were fewer cases in areas with lower levels of air pollution.

Although more research is needed, Dr Wright believes there is enough evidence to show that the health of our environment directly impacts on the health of our children.

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