Toxic Pollutants a Growing Concern for Pregnant Mothers and Babies


Deborah Bell-Holt lives near a decades-old drilling site in South L.A., where oil sucked to the surface comes laced with dangerous pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, methane and toluene. What comes up must go somewhere, and Bell-Holt is sick at the prospect of how much toxic pollution ends up inside the bodies of her family and friends.

“There are moments where I’m so furious,” says Bell-Holt, 69, who has fostered six children. All of them, like her, suffer chronic asthma, a problem linked to the proximity of oil drilling. Some children have terrible skin problems. Her husband has been battling leukemia for several years. As if that wasn’t enough, Bell-Holt now worries about a new generation. “My oldest child is 26, and she has a child that’s 3 years old, and they’re both asthmatic, and they both live here.”

Pregnant mothers living close to oil drilling sites, for example, are at greater risk of giving birth to an underweight baby, a leading cause of infant mortality. More than 2.1 million Californians live within 2,500 feet of an operational oil well.

Bell-Holt said her granddaughter’s asthma has worsened. “She’ll tell you, ‘My chest hurts. I can’t breathe.’ And my daughter takes her immediately off to the children’s hospital. And then she’ll get a breathing treatment, antibiotics and steroids. But the steroids are not good for her to have. She’s a baby — what does she need to be on steroids for to breathe?”

A growing body of research links prolonged exposure to dangerous pollutants and toxic chemicals in the air, drinking water and neighborhood environment, as well as everyday cleaning and beauty products, to serious health problems for mothers, young infants and babies in the womb.

Black and Latino communities appear particularly vulnerable. In L.A. County, these communities are found disproportionately in heavily polluted neighborhoods, and they suffer disproportionately higher rates of maternal and infant death.

All sorts of social determinants — such as poverty, quality of housing, access to good health care and obesity rates — can play a role in infant and maternal health outcomes. But experts have determined that institutionalized discrimination is the overarching cause for the high death rate among Black mothers and their infants. Over time, the stress this causes has a corrosive “weathering” effect on the body, predisposing Black women to chronic conditions like hypertension and gestational diabetes that put them at higher risk during pregnancy.

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Capital & Main, 06-10-22