Pollution could damage unborn babies’ brain cells


Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Being exposed to polluted air when pregnant could cause brain abnormalities in your unborn child, according to a new study from the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

The research, cited by an article in The Conversation, measured the mothers’ exposure to PAH air pollution and used brain imaging to look at how this affected their children’s brains.

PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are pollutants formed when organic materials are burned incompletely. They stem from a variety of sources such as burning coal, incineration of waste or vehicle exhausts. These pollutants also include tobacco smoke or open fires and stoves.

Research on this topic was first done in the 1990s, where a study focused on more than 600 pregnant women in their third trimester from minority communities in New York City. Their exposure to pollution was determined and their children were assessed between three and seven years of age.

The research uncovered that higher exposure was linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and other cognitive and behavioral problems such as reduced IQ, anxiety and depression.

The article states that most recently, 40 of those same children initially assessed had brain scans and the results showed a substantial link between exposure to PAH in utero and a reduction of white matter in the brain. White matter consists of millions of cells that allow fast connections between various parts of the brain.

During intelligence testing, the research suggested that these brain abnormalities were linked to slower reaction times and higher severity of ADHD symptoms and conduct disorders.

There is a growing amount of research now linking air pollution to poor health, including links with autism, schizophrenia and cognitive impairment. Studies on animals too have shown similar links between air pollution and brain disorders.

Although this latest study had its limitations by way of factors such as small sample size and low-income demographic, most evidence points to air pollutions adverse effects on the brain. It should be a major concern as this type of pollution is rampant is almost all cities.

Moreover, the study implies that the disturbances to the brain is proportional to the amount of PAH a mother is exposed to while pregnant. So, living in a more polluted area is likely to put your child at an even higher risk of developing brain abnormalities even before he or she is born.

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