The Effects of Environmental Hazards on Prenatal Development

The effects of environmental influences are wide-ranging depending on the prevailing environmental factors. A particular stage of development fails to take place normally, especially the critical period when cells multiply and enlarge to form organs. Prenatal development is critical in determining the health and structure of a newborn. For example, exposure to chemicals, radioactive material, and drugs among other hazardous conditions may lead to failure in development of some body parts, stunted growth in babies as well as poor cognitive development. Severe exposure can lead to miscarriage or death during and immediately after birth (Hepper 2005). This essay is a critique of the effects of environmental hazards on prenatal development. It presents the impacts of the environmental influences especially during the initial stages of development whereby the vital systems of the body as well as tissues develop.

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Effect of Environmental Hazards on Prenatal Development

Drug Use

Drugs are chemicals that are ingested for the purpose of treatment, to relieve pain or stress as well as for stimulation of the body. Some drugs are prescribed by a physician for curing a disease while others may be taken illegally for other reasons. Hepper et al. (2005) observes that more than 10% of the newborn defects are associated with ingestion of chemicals during pregnancy. The more the drugs or substances ingested, the severe the birth defects, especially when they are taken in the first 3 months of prenatal development. Some of the drugs are             such as narcotics are infectious, leading to addiction in newborns. Research indicates that infants who were exposed to drugs such as heroin and such narcotics develop withdrawal symptoms shortly after birth. They may develop shivers, seizures and breathing difficulties (Stocks and Dezateux 2003).

Other nicotine containing substances and carbon monoxide can adversely affect the fetus. Stocks and Dezateux (2003) observe that unprompted abortions are among the risks associated with maternal smoking. Bleeding is also associated with smoking during pregnancy, as well as the breakage of the amniotic sac before maturity. Generally, smoking is a potential cause of miscarriage and death of infants immediately after birth. If the fetus survives to maturity, the newborn is usually more than 20% lighter than the normal birth weight. The body size is also reduced, which is a sign of premature birth. Such infants suffer many health problems (Weisberg 2007).

Alcohol is one of the most abused drugs during pregnancy, which may be attributed to ignorance and addiction. Hepper et al. (2005) observes that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is amongst the dangers that the fetus is exposed to, which pose high risks of miscarriage. Although the more the alcohol taken the higher the risk, little amounts of alcohol on a daily basis are likely to cause miscarriage. Research indicates that maternal drinking leads to mental retardation in newborns. This condition may persist to cause permanent cognitive disability, facial defects, damage of the brain, heart problems and hyperactivity among other defects (Hepper 2005). These defects may not be manifestly observable in newborns but they may affect development, especially learning difficulties. Little maternal drinking is associated with low IQ in children later in life (Dacey & Travers 2002).

Maternal Conditions

The mother is the principal component of the fetal environment, making her body a major determinant of the success of the fetus. The development of the fetus is affected by the body condition of the mother. Problems such as diseases, nutrition, depression and age among others can adversely affect the fetus. Understanding the body processes during pregnancy is significant for the pregnant woman. This knowledge helps in ensuring that they do not jeopardize the development of the fetus, for example through taking drugs. Viral diseases in the mother are a major threat to the fetus due to their small size which the placenta may be unable to sift out to prevent them from attacking the fetus. Diseases such as the Human Immune Deficiency Syndrome and other viral diseases are therefore likely to be transmitted from the mother to the fetus. Some of the viral diseases acquired during pregnancy may have a permanent effect on the newborn. For example, Weisberg (2007) observes that Rubella which is a type of measles is one of the viral diseases that are known to cause long term deformities in newborns, such as mental retardation and malfunctioning of vital body organs such as the heart and ears. Other diseases that may be transmitted include malaria as well as chicken pox among others. Strain from convulsions resulting from diseases such as Toxemia may lead to premature birth. Other conditions resulting from the condition of the mother such as Anoxia may lead to brain damage of the fetus (Dacey & Travers 2002).

Apart from health factors, nourishment of the mother is important for the growth of the fetus. The fetus’ nutrition is derived from the mother and therefore a deficiency in the nutrients needed for growth may affect prenatal development. The extra demands for the pregnant mother need to be satisfied in order for the fetus to develop successfully (Hepper 2005). Research indicates that there is a direct relationship between the development of a newborn and the nourishment of the mother during pregnancy. Health at early infancy is also dependent on maternal nourishment, and the newborn is likely to develop health problems such as respiratory diseases if the mother was malnourished during pregnancy. Proper diet during pregnancy makes reduces complications encountered during pregnancy, which translates in to a reduced period during labor. Infants born within a short period of labor are likely to develop normally (Mattison et al. 2003).

The mother’s blood composition is a major determinant of the survival of the fetus in a situation where the placenta allows the blood of the mother and fetus to come in to contact, probably through rapture. An RH-negative blood of the mother may produce antibodies that attack the RH-positive blood of the fetus, leading to the death of red blood cells. An oxygen deficit results in the fetus causing death Hepper 2005). However, the RH-positive blood in the fetus only occurs when the father is RH-positive, meaning that it is not always that the occurrence of a rapture in the placenta will cause such a problem Mattison et al. (2003).

Environmental hazards may present themselves in the age of the mother. Stocks and Dezateux (2003) argue that women who give birth at their teenage are likely to miscarry or give birth prematurely than at an advanced age. Research also holds that beyond 35 years is also a risky age to give birth. Such women are at a similar risk with the teenage females. In order for the fetus to develop successfully, the mother has to be fully developed, which makes it difficult for prenatal development in teenagers due to the fact that they may not have accomplished full development of the reproductive system. On the other hand, the functions of the reproductive system diminish with advancing age. Dacey & Travers (2002) argue that the female ova are usually present at birth not developed, which implies that they are exposed to environmental hazards for many years if conception takes place at an advanced age. The weakening of ova due to these hazardous conditions is likely to cause difficulties during prenatal development and birth. The hazards may include harmful radiations, diseases and drugs among other encounters. Hepper (2005) observes that Down syndrome is among the deformities that affect babies born by women at an advanced age, for example above 40 years.


Exposure of the fetus to environmental hazards may hamper prenatal development, which in turn may lead to long term deformities in the child. These hazards include drugs such as narcotics, alcohol, smoking and nicotine containing drinks. The mother’s condition is also a major determinant of the success of pre-natal development. Maternal malnourishment, stress and diseases during pregnancy expose the fetus to the risks of infections and deformities. Teenage and old age also present a risk to prenatal development. Blood composition of the fetus and the mother are major determinants of prenatal development. The RH-factor matters especially when the blood of the mother gains access to the blood stream of the fetus Mattison et al. (2003).


Dacey J.S. & Travers J.F (2002). Human Development across the Lifespan. New York, McGraw Hill

Hepper P. (2005). Unraveling Our Beginnings: On the Embryonic Science of Fetal Psychology.  The Psychologist Vol. 18 (8), pp 474-477

Hepper, P.G., Dornan, J.C. & Little, J.F. (2005). Maternal Alcohol Consumption during Pregnancy may Delay the Development of Spontaneous Fetal Startle Behavior. Physiology and Behavior, Vol. 83, pp 711–714.

Stocks J, Dezateux C. (2003). Nicotine (smoking): The Effect of Parental Smoking on Lung Function and Development during Infancy. Respirology Vol. 8(3) pp 266-85.

Mattison D.R., Wilson S., Coussens C. and Gilbert D. (2003). The Role of Environmental Hazards in Premature Birth: Workshop Summary, National Academies Press.

Weisberg S. S. (2007). Vaccine preventable diseases: current perspectives in historical context. Disease-a-month Journal, Vol. 53(9) pp 467-528.

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