• Tech Tech

Researchers uncover troubling link between sea level rise and pregnancy complications: 'An issue along most of the coastline in America'

"People are trapped."

"People are trapped."

Photo Credit: iStock

For the roughly 40% of the worldwide population who lives within about 60 miles of a coast, a new public health threat is emerging: saltwater intrusion, the creep of seawater inland. And with it, researchers have found, comes threats and complications to pregnancy.

What's happening?

It's an established fact that global heating is changing the weather. Higher air temperatures are creating stronger, potentially longer-lasting storms, which in turn increases flood risks

But there's another, sneakier effect of this supercharged weather — saltwater intrusion — and according to a 2021 study, it's already "one of the main threats to the safety of freshwater supply in coastal zones." 

As Vox reported, this is particularly troubling for pregnant women, as salty drinking water has been linked to disruptions in the menstrual cycle, decreased vaginal health, high blood pressure, gestational hypertension, and preeclampsia. And in some places, such as coastal Bangladesh, women are already consuming more than three times the recommended sodium limit per day, as Vox noted.

"People are trapped," said Zion Bodrud-Doza of the University of Guelph in Ontario, per the news outlet. "When you don't have water to drink, how do you live?"

Saltwater intrusion is a growing threat around the world, from the Netherlands to Vietnam, Brazil, and more. It's already "an issue along most of the coastline in America," said Chris Russoniello, with the University of Rhode Island, in the Vox report

Why is this troubling?

The complications associated with high-salinity drinking and bathing water pose numerous risks to women. Using abrasive saltwater to clean menstrual pads and intimate areas can lead to scratches and sores, which are easily infected, as described in the Vox story. For women working in agriculture, simply standing in salt water every day has been linked to uterine infections and even risk of uterine cancer, as NBC News reported.

And for pregnant women, the associated conditions of gestational hypertension and preeclampsia create "a higher risk of things like a preterm delivery, of fetal loss … a higher risk of the baby growing too small," according to Dr. Tracy Caroline Bank of The Ohio State University, per Vox.

Babies born prematurely and at low birth weights have been shown to have a higher risk of impaired cognitive developments, cerebral palsy, and psychological disorders.

What's being done?

The best way to avoid the worst impacts of saltwater intrusion is by preventing it from contaminating freshwater sources in the first place — though that often proves difficult.

Some countries have built physical barriers with sea walls, levees, sandbags, and more. In the event of a tidal surge, however, some barriers can prevent saltwater from draining back out to sea.

Once saltwater is in fresh water, desalination — the process of removing the salt — may be necessary. But traditional desalination plants cost millions to build and millions more to operate. 

Instead, some scientists are working to develop low-cost desalination methods, from floating buoys to thermodynamics.

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

Cool Divider