Air Pollution and Newborns’ Emotional Health

Behavior issues in children associated with partly burned fossil fuels in air pollution

(RxWiki News) Is something in the air affecting kids' behavior these days? Maybe –chemicals from air pollution breathed in by expectant moms may play a part in their children's behavior issues later on.

A recent study has found an association between behavioral issues in children and a particular group of air pollution particles called "polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons," or PAH. PAH particles are a by-product of burning diesel, gasoline, coal and similar fossil fuels when the fuel is not completely burned up.

"Try to avoid highly polluted areas when you're pregnant."

Lead author Frederica Perera, Dr.PH., director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues looked at two different measures of the levels of PAH that pregnant women were exposed to and investigated behavioral patterns in their children.

The study involve 253 non-smoking African-American and Dominican women who lived in New York City and gave birth to children between 1999 and 2006. Their children were tracked for seven to eight years.

For the first measure, researchers took samples from the air around the women during their third trimester. Then, they measured the levels of PAH that had bonded to DNA samples in blood samples taken from the mother and the umbilical cord.

When a pregnant woman breathes in PAH, it can cross her placenta and become attached to the baby's DNA, where it can be measured. The data revealed that all the women had at least some exposure to PAH, though the amounts had a broad range across the group of women.

Perera's team then used questionnaires when the children were about 4 and 7 years old to find out from the mothers whether the children showed symptoms of depression, anxiety or attention deficit. They also controlled for factors that might have altered the results, such as exposure to second-hand smoke or the women's diets.

They found that the children whose cord blood and whose mothers had high measurements of exposure to PAH were also more likely to be anxious or depressed at age 4 and were more likely to have attention problems when they were 4 and 7.

"This study provides evidence that environmental levels of PAH encountered in NYC air can adversely affect child behavior," Perera said. "Attention problems and anxiety and depression have been shown to affect peer relationships and academic performance," she added.

The study appeared online March 22 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Educational Foundation of America, the New York Community Trust, Trustees of the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, the Gladys T. And Rolan Harriman Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the John and Wendy Neu Foundation.

Review Date: 
March 22, 2012