Pollution increases risks of low birth weight, says UHasselt


PhD research from Hasselt University shows that higher levels of fine particulates in the air lead to a much greater risk of low birth weights

Traffic matters

Pregnant women exposed to air pollution run a higher risk of having a baby that is below the normal birth weight, according to research carried out by PhD student Esmée Bijnens of Hasselt University and the University of Maastricht.

Bijnens examined the connection between environmental factors and the health of newborns. She based her research on data gathered from 4,760 sets of twins in Flanders. “By analysing twins, we can make a distinction between the relative importance of genes and environmental factors,” she explained. 

The researcher found that babies born to women exposed to higher concentrations of air pollution during the pregnancy had a greater chance of being underweight in proportion to the duration of the pregnancy. An increase of 10 micrograms of fine particulates per cubic metre resulted in a 34% increase in low birth weights.

The researchers also discovered a connection between the proximity of traffic in relation to a woman’s home and the length of the telomeres in the placenta tissue. Telomeres are sequences of DNA that protect genetic material and become shorter as people grow older. The longer the distance between the home and the nearest road, the longer the telomeres in the placenta are – and thus the slower the ageing process.

Pollution in Flanders

With its high population density, heavy traffic and industry, pollution is one of the most vital environmental and health challenges facing Flanders. The levels of fine particulates in Flemish cities are among the highest in the world.
Particles - Fine particulates are air pollutants emitted by sources such as industries, power plants, vehicles (in Flanders, diesel cars especially) and domestic heating, and can cause respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer in the long run.
Air - According to the European Commission, residents in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent have been exposed to unhealthy levels of fine dust pollution levels since 2005. Belgium has already received two warnings from the Commission since 2012 to improve the local air quality.
Smog alarm - Speed limits are temporarily lowered when air pollution levels exceed certain thresholds. At the lowest of the three grades of pollution, speed limits in Brussels are reduced to 50 km/h in cities and to 90 km/h on parts of Flemish motorways.

months of life lost because of air pollution


alarm level for microgram level of fine particulates per cubic metre


billion greenhouse gas emissions in CO2 equivalents in Flanders in 2011