University of Maryland: In Assessing Environmental Risks to Pregnancy, Fathers Matter Too

While a growing body of research reveals sharp racial and ethnic disparities in adverse birth outcomes linked to prenatal exposure to air pollution, studies have mostly focused on mothers. New University of Maryland research, however, shows that when it comes to how characteristics like race, education and income amplify the effects of air pollution on low birth weight and other problems, both parents matter.

The study published recently in Environmental Health was led by Devon Payne-Sturges, an associate professor of applied environmental health in the School of Public Health.

“The potential influence of paternal characteristics on birth outcomes associated with air pollution exposure has not been well studied at a national scale,” Payne-Sturges said. “Additionally, given the increasing interest in the cumulative health impacts of multiple stressors on minority populations, I thought a more thorough examination of the role of paternal characteristics in studies of air pollution and birth outcomes was needed.”

The study examined the effects of PM2.5—fine, inhalable particulate matter like smoke or organic compounds—on birth weight, using a nationally representative sample of infants. Results show worse birth weight outcomes associated with prenatal PM2.5 among births where the father’s race was not reported and among Asian American and Pacific Islander fathers. With the principle of paternal influence on pollution-related birth outcomes established, future research will focus on greater understanding of the dynamics of the phenomenon, she said.

“Several pathways have been postulated to explain how paternal factors contribute to adverse birth outcomes and racial disparities, including social and material support and health literacy—but also, chronic stress associated with everyday interpersonal, institutional and structural racism experienced by both mothers and fathers of color and mixed-race couples can affect birth outcomes,” Payne-Sturges said.

Understanding the social context behind disparate environmental exposures and their associated health impacts is key, she said. Low birth weight can be associated with increased risk of neurodevelopmental delays, intellectual and developmental disabilities, other health complications, and even infant mortality.

“If we can uncover causes of low birth weight that we can change, like air pollution, then actions can be taken to prevent these outcomes,” she said.

It’s time to more broadly examine impacts of parental characteristics on exposure and health to create a more comprehensive understanding of the risk factors.

“We hope this paper encourages new interdisciplinary research between environmental health scientists, reproductive health scientists, sociologists and family science researchers to answer larger policy-relevant questions about larger societal-level processes—like poverty and limited access to resources—that lead to unequal environmental exposures,” she said.