Prenatal exposure to pollution from vanadium, a trace metal, found to contribute to low birth weights, premature delivery

A recently concluded two-year population-based cohort study has proven the deadly potential of vanadium, especially when it comes to gestation. The study analyzed the possible association between prenatal exposure to the heavy metal and the risk of adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and pre-term delivery. A statistical analysis of data of around 8,000 Chinese women showed that a higher exposure to vanadium dramatically increased the risk of women delivering a child who was smaller for their gestational age. These children were also more likely to be delivered before the appropriate nine months.

Authors of the study have stated that these results should add more pressure to local governments and international communities to set stricter protocols on the usage of vanadium, especially for commercial use. Previous studies have already concluded that vanadium exposure can cause lung and gastrointestinal problems among workers who are constantly exposed to it. That said, scientists have argued that vanadium is necessary for normal bone growth — but only in very small amounts. The heavy metal is, in fact, found in trace amounts in many types of food such as mushrooms, parsley, beer, wine, and grain. Typical balanced diets have as much as 0.01 milligrams of vanadium in them, which is just enough to support normal biological needs.

However, vanadium is more often used as a shock- and corrosion-resistant steel additive. Eighty percent of the vanadium produced by global companies is alloyed with iron to improve the viability and durability of steel products. Vanadium-steel alloys are the material of choice for tools that need to be extremely tough. These include armor plates, car gears, piston rods, and crankshafts. Nuclear reactors are likewise made of vanadium-steel alloys.

Vanadium’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, as more companies look for a metal that can be both tough and light. The demand has forced more workers to become exposed to vanadium.

The long-term effects

Babies who are born at a low birth weight are more likely to develop cognitive and development problems as they age. These potential dangers have not lessened, despite technical advances in the medical industry. This is why many health groups emphasize the need to improve maternal health as a preventive measure against adverse birth outcomes.

Dozens of studies have suggested that low birth weight or pre-term births can result in:

  • Mental health problems – This could begin in childhood and can extend to the early 30s. An extremely low birth weight has also been correlated with the higher probability of developing anxiety, depression, and shyness during a person’s twenties.
  • Early death – Children who are delivered before nine months or are smaller than their gestational age are at risk of dying before their first year. Low birth weight infants were noted to have a weakened immune system and were less likely to gain weight.
  • Being sickly – Studies have shown that pre-term births and low birth weight increases the likelihood of a child being sickly. The prevalence of infant illnesses among these children is higher compared to infants who were delivered at full-term.

Low birth weight describes any child born weighing less than five pounds, eight ounces (or around 2,500 grams). Average newborns weigh around eight pounds. Current estimates place around eight percent of all newborns born in the United States having a low birth weight.

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