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Diesel Fumes Poison Babies in the Womb During pregnancy women crave for strange foods. Strange as it may seem, some even crave for “diesel fumes”. Diesel fuel is a complex mixture of aromatic hydrocarbons produced by distilling crude oil. For some time, s cientists have been indicating that the pollution caused by diesel fumes is a serious health risk. They have now found that tiny particles of soot, released by diesel engines, pass through a woman’s lung and, through the placenta, to the foetus. There they release chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which act as a neurotoxin, damaging brain development. PAH are produced by many sources when fuel and organic substances are not burnt properly. The biggest source of PAH is from diesel engines of motor vehicles in very crowded cities. The researchers, led by Amy Margolis, a medical psychologist at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York, tracked 462 children from the time they were conceived to the time they were aged between 12 and 18. Blood samples were taken from the mother and also from the umbilical cord, when the children were born, to check the levels of pollution mothers were exposed to. They then tracked the children’s development. The results showed that children exposed to lowest pollutant levels tended to mature normally, learnt to control their impulses and formed good relationship with their peers. Those exposed to higher levels of pollutants tended to remain impulsive, were slow to develop social skills and did not make good friends. There was also the fear that they had a higher risk of becoming antisocial. Exposure to high levels of PAH during the last three months of pregnancy also carried an increased risk of developing autism in new born children. In another study, Columbia researchers, led by Bradley Peterson, scanned the brains of 40 children. The results suggested that children, who were exposed to higher levels of PAH at the pre-natal stage, had reduced growth of white matter in the brain. White matter is responsible for how the brain learns and functions. It is also responsible for co-ordination and communication between different regions of the brain. These children exhibited symptoms of “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD) and behavioral problems. Similar findings were noted during the days when petrol had lead compounds added to it. When I see the increasing number of two wheelers on the crowded roads in India, I dread to think of the number of people being poisoned by exhaust fumes from vehicles. Today we see more and more young women riding motor bikes and scooters. Maternal toxicity, as a result of acute exposure to diesel fumes during pregnancy, is likely to be a major determinant of the risk posed to the developing foetus. If you consider preserving the health of the next generation in your country, it is important that women take extra care to avoid breathing polluted air containing diesel fumes when they are pregnant. K. Badrinath