This text was originally published in Catalan in La Conca 5.1 and it was written by Susana Pascual, one of the 1,200 pregnant women participating in the BiSC Project to learn about the impact of air pollution on pregnancy.
Over the past 10 years, I have been more or less involved in several pregnancies, none of them my own, but only over the past nine months have I truly come to understand what pregnancy involves. Now that I am about to become a mother, I realise that I never really knew how to help my pregnant friends when they were dealing with this mix of emotions and hormones, this combination of empowerment and vulnerability.
Since 2016, I have been collaborating with the Associació per la Promoció del Transport Públic (Association for the Promotion of Public Transport) and the Plataforma per la Qualitat de l'Aire (Platform for Air Quality) to help create a more sustainable mobility system and reduce air pollution. Over the three years that I have been working with these groups, the notion that pregnant women, children and elderly people are especially vulnerable to nitrogen dioxide, suspended particles and ozone has been a constant refrain. Until recently, I don’t think I fully understood the concept of vulnerability. But now that I am experiencing it first-hand, I can confirm that pregnant women are a vulnerable group—not weak, but vulnerable.
Now that I am experiencing it first-hand, I can confirm that pregnant women are a vulnerable group—not weak— to nitrogen dioxide, suspended particles and ozone
Since becoming pregnant, I have become much more sensitive to smells and fumes of all sorts, from cigarette smoke—I fantasise about squirting smokers with a spray bottle—to car exhaust. Of course, exhaust fumes aren’t the only nuisance caused by cars—they also make noise, take up space and consume energy. In any case, people clearly don’t realise the extent to which fumes destroy both our lives and the environment.
This disconnect—this failure to recognise causes, consequences and responsibilities—reminds me very much of the debate surrounding climate change. Fortunately, we have role models. The young students who have joined the Fridays for Future movement have shown us a way to counter the refusal of the existing power structures to address “invisible” pollution-related problems that affect us all. The initiative was started by Greta Thunberg, who reminds us that now is the time to act. “More and more people are starting to understand that this is an emergency,” explains Thunberg. “We are in the midst of a life or death crisis that is not being treated like one.”
Susana with a backpack containing instruments for measuring air pollution and noise
But let’s get back to the topic of air pollution and my pregnancy... I was at Hospital de Sant Pau, waiting to have my week 12 ultrasound, when I came across some information about the BiSC project led by ISGlobal. This project studies the relationship between noise and air pollution and the development of babies in the womb and in the first years of life. Various hospitals—including Sant Joan de Déu, Maternitat, Hospital de Sant Pau and Hospital Clínic—are taking part in the project. By the time I was called into my gynaecologist’s office, I had already signed up on the BiSC website. I was the third volunteer to join the project.
By the time I was called into my gynaecologist’s office, I had already signed up on the BiSC website. I was the third volunteer to join the project
Recruitment of pregnant women will continue until there are 1,200 volunteers in total—a sample size that will ensure relevant and meaningful data for the scientific world, government agencies and society at large. Armed with this information, the authorities will be able to make brave decisions and introduce definitive measures. Among other measures, I hope they will introduce restrictions to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide and suspended particles, which diminish quality of life for so many people. Some of those affected, like me, are particularly vulnerable and others are less vulnerable but still end up paying more visits to the hospital, experiencing respiratory conditions and developing cardiovascular diseases, stroke, cancer, and other conditions.
According to figures included in the 2019-2024 Urban Mobility Plan for the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, in 2016 the region saw an estimated 2,260 deaths associated with nitrogen dioxide levels, of which 1,248 (55%) took place in the city of Barcelona.
Uma, week 12
This is my daughter Uma’s week 12 ultrasound photo. It looks like she’s waving to us. “Hello! Here I am... hoping for a better world!”
She and I are now part of the BiSC project. Despite our vulnerability, we are going to fight for a better society, for air-quality levels that allow us to live healthy lives, free from diseases related to air pollution. Everyone can help to transform society. We just have to think about what we can do at any given time, change our habits and come up with measures to create a new mobility paradigm for our community.
Despite our vulnerability, we are going to fight for a better society, for air-quality levels that allow us to live healthy lives, free from diseases related to air pollution
I look forward to the implementation of new government policies, such as zero-emissions zones. But I also the hope the government will take braver, more ambitious and more effective steps to reduce air pollution. What sorts of measures do I hope to see? Congestion-pricing schemes to reduce pollution and traffic in city centres. Traffic-calming measures that prioritise the social use of public space and puts sustainable mobility at the centre of transport design. Parking regulations. Investment of mobility-related tax revenue in improving metropolitan public transport.
If we take action, perhaps Uma and the other 3,300,000 residents of the Barcelona metropolitan area will be able to breathe cleaner air and enjoy safer, healthier environmental conditions.