Impacts of High Environmental Temperatures on Congenital Anomalies: A Systematic Review

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 May 5;18(9):4910. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094910.


Links between heat exposure and congenital anomalies have not been explored in detail despite animal data and other strands of evidence that indicate such links are likely. We reviewed articles on heat and congenital anomalies from PubMed and Web of Science, screening 14,880 titles and abstracts in duplicate for articles on environmental heat exposure during pregnancy and congenital anomalies. Thirteen studies were included. Most studies were in North America (8) or the Middle East (3). Methodological diversity was considerable, including in temperature measurement, gestational windows of exposure, and range of defects studied. Associations were detected between heat exposure and congenital cardiac anomalies in three of six studies, with point estimates highest for atrial septal defects. Two studies with null findings used self-reported temperature exposures. Hypospadias, congenital cataracts, renal agenesis/hypoplasia, spina bifida, and craniofacial defects were also linked with heat exposure. Effects generally increased with duration and intensity of heat exposure. However, some neural tube defects, gastroschisis, anopthalmia/microphthalmia and congenital hypothyroidism were less frequent at higher temperatures. While findings are heterogenous, the evidence raises important concerns about heat exposure and birth defects. Some heterogeneity may be explained by biases in reproductive epidemiology. Pooled analyses of heat impacts using registers of congenital anomalies are a high priority.

Keywords: birth defects; climate change; congenital; environmental health; heat; maternal health; neonates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Congenital Abnormalities* / epidemiology
  • Congenital Abnormalities* / etiology
  • Female
  • Heart Defects, Congenital* / epidemiology
  • Heart Defects, Congenital* / etiology
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Middle East
  • North America
  • Pregnancy
  • Temperature