International Journal of Biometeorology March 2018, Volume 62, Issue 3, pp 319–330
It is well established that high ambient heat could cause congenital abnormalities resulting in miscarriage or stillbirth among certain species of mammals. However, this has not been systematically studied in real field settings among humans, despite the potential value of such knowledge for estimating the impact of global warming on the human species. This study sought to test the hypothesis that maternal heat exposure during pregnancy in hot regions is associated with increased prevalence of spontaneous abortions or stillbirths and to develop an analytical strategy to use existing data from maternal health surveys and existing data on historical heat levels at a geographic grid cell level. A subsample of the Ghana Maternal Health Survey 2007 was used in this study. This study sample consisted of 1136 women with pregnancy experiences between 2004 and 2007, out of which 141 women had a pregnancy that terminated in miscarriage or stillbirth. Induced-abortion cases were excluded. The linkage between ambient heat exposure and pregnancy outcome followed the epidemiological time-place-person principle, by linking timing of pregnancy outcome with historical data of local area heat levels for each month, as estimated in an international database. Maternal heat exposure level was estimated using calculated levels of the wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT), which takes into account temperature, humidity, heat radiation, and air movement over the skin (wind speed). The values we used applied to exposure in the shade or in buildings without cooling (no solar heat radiation) and a standard air movement of 1 m/s. We applied two exposure durations: yearly average and monthly average for second month of pregnancy. In one analysis, we restricted the sample to four regions with time-homogeneous ambient heat. Analysis was made using logistic regression. About 12% of the latest pregnancies ended in either miscarriage (9.6%) or stillbirth (2.8%). The odds ratios indicated 12 to 15% increase (ORcrude 1.15, 95% CI 0.92–1.42, and ORage adjusted 1.12, 95% CI 0.90–1.39) in the odds of having a stillbirth or miscarriage with each additional degree increase in WBGT, although this was just outside two-sided statistical significance. The WBGT range was quite narrow (most annual values in the range 24–26 °C, and most monthly values in the range 23–27 °C), which may have hidden any real impacts of high heat levels. The seemingly positive association observed disappeared after adjusting for gravidity. The analyses of the four selected regions indicated 27 to 42% increase in the odds of experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth with every degree increase in WBGT (crude OR 1.42 95% CI 1.00–2.03). This association remained after adjusting for maternal age pregnancy history, although no longer statistically significant (adjusted OR 1.27, 95% CI 0.89–1.81). Environmental heat exposures may be associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, but this study was inconclusive, possibly because the heat exposure range was small. Historical records of routine observations in existing databases can be used for epidemiological studies on the health effects of heat, although data from properly and purposively designed studies might be more suitable for further studies.