Cognitive Development Impacted by Prenatal Exposure to Urban Air Pollution

A newly published study out of Krakow, Poland and conducted by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) found that prenatal exposure to pollutants can adversely affect children’s cognitive development at age five, wrote Science Daily. These findings confirm earlier findings from a study conducted in New York City. The study findings are published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Science Daily reported that the current study revealed that children exposed to high levels of <"">polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in Krakow experienced a marked decrease in scores on a standardized test of reasoning ability and intelligence at age five. PAHs are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned for transportation, heating, and energy production, as well as other combustion sources.

“The effect on intelligence was comparable to that seen in New York City children exposed prenatally to the same air pollutants,” noted Frederica Perera, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the CCCEH at the Mailman School of Public Health, and senior author, quoted Science Daily. “This finding is of concern because IQ is an important predictor of future academic performance, and PAHs are widespread in urban environments and throughout the world,” added Perera

“These results contribute to the cumulative body of published evidence linking ambient air pollution levels and adverse health effects in children and are clearly relevant to public health policy,” said Susan Edwards, study lead author, Science Daily wrote.

The study included a cohort of 214 children born to healthy, non-smoking, Caucasian women in Krakow from 2001 and 2006, said Science Daily. “During pregnancy, the mothers completed a questionnaire, wore small backpack personal air monitors to estimate their babies’ PAH exposure, and provided a blood sample and/or a cord blood sample at the time of delivery,” said Science Daily. The children were followed until age five and tested via the Raven Coloured Progressive Matrices (RCPM) Test of reasoning ability and intelligence, Science Daily explained. After accounting for factors including second-hand smoke exposure, lead, and mother’s education, the team found that prenatal PAH exposure adversely affected IQ scores. The new finding confirms the CCCEH’s 2009 report in a cohort of children of nonsmoking African American and Dominican American women in Manhattan.

“Air pollution knows no boundaries,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funded the study. “Researchers around the globe are finding that air pollution is harmful to children’s development,” quoted Science Daily.

We previously wrote that early exposure to air pollutants has been linked to lung disease in later life, citing the prior Science Daily report on a first-of-it-kind study that revealed that exposure to “environmentally persistent free radicals” in early life can affect “long-term lung function.” Stephania Cormier, PhD, an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans study found that infant inhalation exposure to ultra fine pollutants led to the production of some proteins in genes, such as the protein linked with “COPD and steroid-resistant asthma,” said Science Daily. The exposure also resulted in proteins to “misfold,” which caused them to become “dysfunctional.” According to Science Daily, such dysfunctions, or defects, are connected to structural lung changes, “airflow limitations, and permanent changes in immune responses.”

The Dallas Morning News also wrote about two studies pointing to how pollution impacts asthma and intelligence levels. One study found that pollution, combined with stress, increases a child’s risk for developing the disease by 45 percent. Another study found that prenatal pollution exposure is linked to lower IQ scores, said the Dallas Morning News, which noted that children born to women exposed to “typical urban pollution” when pregnant scored about five points lower on such tests.

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