Women exposed to coal smoke during pregnancy are at an increased risk of having a baby with birth defects, a Chinese study suggests.
Peking University Health Science Center researchers found that the risk of developing brain and spine malformations known as neural tube defects is 60 percent higher in babies born to mothers who had inhaled coal smoke during pregnancy.
According to the findings published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, about 90 percent of the babies with neural tube defects lived in houses that used coal, compared to 80 percent of the infants without the defects.
While coal is relatively inexpensive compared with other energy sources, breathing coal smoke is associated with known health risks.
About 90 percent of the rural household worldwide uses this less expensive source of energy and biomass fuel, despite of knowing its health hazards, WHO says. The study authors said about 70 percent of the Chinese families rely on coal or biomass fuels for cooking and warming up their homes.
Coal smoke contains many harmful chemicals, including arsenic, carbon monoxide and lead, which are known triggers for respiratory disease, infections, asthma and cancer.
The new research just showed an association and not a cause and effect relation between exposure to coal smoke during pregnancy and higher risk of neural malformation in babies, scientists noted.
They, however, stressed that coal should be replaced with safer economical energy sources.