Effects of smoking during pregnancy seen in these 4-D ultrasound scans

Pregnancy smoking
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

If environmental harm and public health impact aren't enough to help someone quit smoking, these high-definition images showing the effects of tobacco in the womb may do the trick.

At this point we know that cigarette smoking is bad. It is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year. Environmental tobacco smoke contains cancer-causing compounds that the U.S. government regulates as hazardous air pollutants. Cigarette filters pose a serious litter and toxic waste disposal problem; it is estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of butts wind up as litter worldwide per year – one researcher found that just one cigarette butt can contaminate a liter of water so severely that fish die in it. Annual smoking-attributable economic costs in the United States exceed $289 billion a year, including costs for direct medical care and lost productivity.

The list goes on and on.

We know that smoking is terrible for the environment, bad for the economy, and horrendous for health; but for a lot of people these facts and figures remain abstract. However, researchers from Durham and Lancaster universities have come up with a series of images that may work to drive the point home.

Looking like something from a scare-tactics public service announcement – or, a horror movie – the 4-D ultrasound scans are comprised of 80 images of 20 fetuses, and were recorded to assess subtle mouth and touch movements. Scans were taken at four different intervals between 24 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. Four of the mothers participating smoked an average of 14 cigarettes per day, the rest of the mothers were non-smokers.

The scans, pictured below, show the movements of two fetuses at 32 weeks; row A from a mother who smokes, row B from a mother who is a non-smoker.

© Dr. Nadja Reissland, Durham University
© Dr. Nadja Reissland, Durham University
The results reveal that fetuses whose mothers were smokers showed a significantly higher rate of mouth movements than normal; mouth movements like this are supposed to decline during pregnancy.

The researchers conclude that the cause may be that the fetal central nervous systems were not developing at the same rate and in the same manner, depending on whether or not the mothers smoked. Previous studies have reported a delay in relation to speech processing abilities in infants exposed to smoking during pregnancy, the researchers say.

While the scans clearly look dramatic – the grimaces are a nice touch – what's fascinating is that they so clearly reveal the real-time impact of smoking on the body. These aren't statistics rattled off by the CDC, they are palpable – and poignant – images of what can happen when one smokes.

As co-author Professor Brian Francis, of Lancaster University, says, “Technology means we can now see what was previously hidden, revealing how smoking affects the development of the fetus in ways we did not realise. This is yet further evidence of the negative effects of smoking in pregnancy.”

So what's the point here? If statistics on environmental harm, economic loss and the threat to public health aren't enough to get you or a loved one to stop smoking, perhaps these images might be enough to give a proper nudge in the right direction. And while all of the fetuses in this research were clinically assessed and healthy when born, the direct impact that smoking has on the body, as shown here, is hard to deny.

Tags: Babies | Health


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