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'I was in pain' | Mom shares how the environment and climate could impact pregnant women

Experts say extreme heat and air pollution may lead to issues like low birth weight and stillbirth

WASHINGTON — It was a picture-perfect day.  Good enough for a splash at Lake Anna in Mineral, Virginia. That's where Michelle Powers and her family ended for a few days this summer.  It's a day that will hold special memories for her family. But that night was a different story. 

"I was in pain," Powers said. "It was stop-me-in-my-tracks, bend-over, intense cramping."

In the midst of all of the fun in the sun that day, drinking enough water may have slipped her mind.

"It's easy when you're floating in the water to forget to hydrate because you're surrounded by water, why would you think to drink it," she told WUSA9. 

For the average person, this may leave you thirsty.  But for someone who is pregnant, like Powers, dehydration can lead to Braxton-Hicks contractions. The false labor pains can be excruciating and are often mistaken for true labor. It's one of several issues that send pregnant women to the emergency room before their due date, especially after being exposed to summer heat.  Pregnancy is already taxing on the body, and now medical experts say that climate driven extreme heat and air pollution is making some women more vulnerable. 

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"We now have very good data that tells us it increases things like preterm birth, low birth weight and still birth," said Dr. Nathanial DeNicola, an OBGYN with the Johns Hopkins Health System. 

DeNicola is one of the authors of a review published in JAMA. In 2020, he and colleagues looked at 57 studies which included 32,798,152 births. 

"With extreme heat, it's not just dehydration that can cause the preterm contraction that could result in preterm birth, it also effects the blood flow to the uterus. So it's reduced with extreme heat and that effects the placental infant exchange which is how much nutrients and oxygen the baby receives. And so we see things like low birth weights," Dr. DeNicola explained. 

Numerous studies have also found that African American women are at a higher risk for these factors. 

The very air a pregnant woman breathes can also be critical to her care. A study published by The National Institutes of Health found that carbon monoxide, cooking smoke and particulate matter were associated with a higher risk for stillbirth, and miscarriages.  Particulate matter also known as PM 2.5 particles are extremely small and can be inhaled causing lung irritation and can be taxing for those who suffer with asthma and other health issues.  

"It's biologically active in the placenta and as a toxicant it can just disrupt things," Dr. DeNicola said.  "It can interfere with the proper fetal placental exchange of oxygen and nutrients. It can create inflammation." 

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While this may sound troubling, it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. 

"We don't want to create and alarmist position, like everything in nature is out to get you," DeNicola said. 

He says pregnant women can protect themselves by staying hydrated, avoiding extreme heat, having access to air conditioning and avoiding prolonged activities outdoors when air pollution levels are high. 

As for Michelle, going outside is must as she already has a 4 year old son who enjoys trips to the park.  But she's just a lot more careful and takes it one day at time. 

"So certainly planning our park trips for the morning, come home early midday, versus staying out most of the day," Powers said. 

Powers is a certified nurse midwife. 

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