The Dangers of Heat During Pregnancy – Harvard Gazette

According to a study by Stefania Papatheodorou, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard Chan School, and colleagues, higher temperatures were associated with reduced fetal growth. Papatheodorou discusses the implications of the study – and what pregnant people can do to protect themselves during days of extreme heat due to climate change.

Harvard Chan School: What were some of the specific findings of your research? Will you continue this line of research?

Papatheodorou: We studied a large pregnancy cohort from eastern Massachusetts and looked at nearly 9,500 pregnancies. After adjusting for air pollution and maternal characteristics, we found that temperature has a profound effect on fetal growth. Fetal growth is measured by key parameters, abdominal circumference and femur length. We found that the parameters of the head, which are characteristic of brain size, were mainly influenced by temperature, and even more so in early pregnancy. They were more sensitive than the rest of the structures in the body.

We do not yet know the clinical significance of these findings. To see if these heat-related changes in fetal structures result in actual neurodevelopmental outcomes, we are now doing a larger study. We were awarded a large grant to do a national analysis of more than 1.4 million pregnancies between 2000 and 2014, using Medicaid data. This study will aim to unravel the association between climatic factors, air pollution and neurodevelopmental outcomes. We hope to have results within a year.

Harvard Chan School: How does your recent study align with your general research interests?

Papatheodorou: My main research is on the intersection between air pollution and climate change. But it is not enough just to look at the effects of particulate matter in the air [PM2.5] and other pollutants. We always want to see if negative health effects are really related to air pollution or something else related to climate change. Last year we published a study looking at the effect of PM2.5 on fetal growth. The temperature was taken into account. That study showed an independent effect of temperature on fetal growth, greater than the effect of PM2.5. Given that finding, we wanted to highlight the effects of heat in a separate article, as the impact of heat on fetal development can have huge implications for later life.

Harvard Chan School: What can pregnant people do to prevent the potentially negative effects of heat on fetal growth?

Papatheodorou: Pregnant people can avoid spending much time outdoors when it is extremely hot and can use air conditioning. But it’s not that simple, because there are differences. For example, some people don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to have it on 24/7. They may have to work outside regardless of the weather. Maybe they can’t afford to lose days of work.

Given this reality, and as temperatures are likely to become more extreme, we really need to find solutions now, as they could take years to implement. We need policy-level solutions to help people protect themselves from climate change.

Karen Feldscher

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The Dangers of Heat During Pregnancy – Harvard Gazette

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