In utero exposure to urban air pollutants can increase risk

April 25, 2006

Prenatal exposure to air pollutants in New York City can adversely affect child development, according to the results of a study released today by the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Previous studies have shown that the same air pollutants can reduce fetal growth (both weight and head circumference at birth), but this study, which examined a group of the same children at three years of age, is the first to reveal that those pollutants can also affect cognitive development during childhood.

The study will be published online Monday, April 24, 2006, and can be accessed at the following URL: http://www.ehponline.org/docs/2006/9084/abstract.html.

Investigators at the Center studied a sample of 183 three-year-old children of non-smoking African-American and Dominican women residing in the neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Central Harlem, and the South Bronx. They found that exposure during pregnancy to combustion-related urban air pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were linked to significantly lower scores on mental development tests and more than double the risk of developmental delay at age three. Such delay in cognitive development is indicative of greater risk for performance deficits in language, reading, and math in the early school years.

In the study, the mothers' exposure during pregnancy to varying levels of airborne PAHs was measured by personal air monitoring. PAHs enter the environment when combustion occurs - such as from car, truck, or bus engines, residential heating, power generation, or tobacco smoking. Following inhalation by the mother, the pollutants can be transferred across the placenta to reach the fetus. Children were tested at age three using a standardized test of mental and psychomotor development.

The study is part of a broader multi-year research project. "The Mothers and Children Study in New York City," started in 1998, which examines the health effects of exposure of pregnant women and babies to indoor and outdoor air pollutants, pesticides, and allergens.

"These findings are of concern, because compromised mental performance in the preschool years is an important precursor of subsequent educational performance deficits," said Dr. Frederica Perera, DrPH director of the Center and lead investigator. "Fortunately, airborne PAH concentrations can be reduced by currently available pollution controls, greater energy efficiency, and the use of alternative energy sources."

"Identifying and attending to developmental delays in the preschool years is likely to be cost-effective and improve cognitive development," said Dr. Virginia Rauh, ScD, co-investigator and co-author of the study, "since the skills children bring with them to school not only affect educational outcomes but also determine how schools must spend their resources."

In this study, the children who were exposed in the womb to the highest levels of PAHs scored on average 5.7 points (6.3%) lower on cognitive tests than the less exposed children; and their risk of being developmentally delayed was 2.9-times greater than that of children who had lower prenatal exposure; both results were statistically significant.

The investigators controlled for other exposures that might have contributed to developmental problems such as socioeconomic factors, exposure to tobacco smoke, lead, and other environmental contaminants.
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The study was made possible by funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a number of private foundations.

Other co-investigators on the study include Pat Kinney, Robin Whyatt, and Wei Yann Tsai.

About the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health
The Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health - part of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University - is a leading research organization dedicated to understanding and preventing environmentally related disease in children. Founded in 1998, the Center conducts research in New York City, as well as Krakow, Poland, and Chonqing, China. Its mission is to improve the respiratory health and cognitive development of children and to reduce their cancer risk by identifying environmental toxicants and conditions related to poverty that increase their risk of disease. The Center collaborates with residents and partner organizations in Washington Heights, Harlem and the South Bronx to share research findings with the local communities in ways that are meaningful and usable in daily life. (www.ccceh.org)

About the Mailman School of Public Health
The only accredited school of public health in New York City, and among the first in the nation Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health provides instruction and research opportunities to more than 950 graduate students in pursuit of masters and doctoral degrees. Its students and more than 270 multi-disciplinary faculty engage in research and service in the city, nation, and around the world, concentrating on biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health policy and management, population and family health, and sociomedical sciences. (www.mailman.hs.columbia.edu)

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

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