Claim: Prenatal exposure to air pollution linked to impulsivity, emotional problems in children

So where were all these problems when US air quality was at its “worst”? Where are they in China and India, now?

The media release is below.


Prenatal exposure to air pollution linked to impulsivity, emotional problems in children

Exposure to common air pollutants during pregnancy may predispose children to problems regulating their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors later on, according to a new study led by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health within Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and New York State Psychiatric Institute. The new study is the first of its kind to examine the effects of early life exposure to a common air pollutant known as PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) on self-regulating behaviors and social competency that incorporates multiple assessment points across childhood. Children with poor self-regulation skills have difficulty managing disruptive thoughts, emotions, and impulses; poor social competency limits their ability to get along with others. The study appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

PAH are ubiquitous in the environment from emissions from motor vehicles; oil, and coal burning for home heating and power generation; tobacco smoke; and other combustion sources. (More on PAH and ways to limit exposure can be found on the CCCEH website.) Prenatal exposure to PAH has been associated with ADHD; symptoms of anxiety, depression and inattention; and also behavioral disorders, which are all thought to be related to deficits in self-regulation.

Lead investigator Amy Margolis, assistant professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and New York State Psychiatric Institute, and colleagues analyzed maternal blood samples and child tests results from 462 mother-child pairs, a subset of CCCEH’s ongoing urban birth cohort study in New York City, from pregnancy through early childhood. Maternal exposure to PAH was determined by presence of DNA-PAH adducts in a maternal blood sample.

Children were tested with the Child Behavior Checklist at ages 3-5, 7, 9, and 11. Scores obtained from the CBCL were used to create a composite score for the Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation Scale (DESR), and higher scores on the DESR indicated reduced capabilities to self-regulate. Investigators found that children whose mothers had higher exposure to PAH in pregnancy had significantly worse scores on the DESR at ages 9 and 11 than children whose mothers had lower exposure to PAH in pregnancy. Over time, low-exposure children followed a typical developmental pattern and improved in self-regulatory function, but the high-exposed children did not, underscoring the long-term effect of early-life exposure to PAH. Additionally, researchers found that DESR score had a mediating effect on tests of social competence, indicating that self-regulation is an important factor in developing social competence.

The evidence that prenatal exposure to PAH leads to long-term effects on self-regulatory capacities during early and middle childhood suggests that PAH exposure may be an important underlying and contributing factor to the genesis of a range of childhood mental health problems. In terms of a potential mechanism, researchers suggest that prenatal exposure to PAH damages neural circuits that direct motor, attentional, and emotional responses. Further deficits in self-regulation may predispose children to becoming engaged in high-risk adolescent behaviors.

“This study indicates that prenatal exposure to air pollution impacts development of self-regulation and as such may underlie the development of many childhood psychopathologies that derive from deficits in self-regulation, such as ADHD, OCD, substance use disorders, and eating disorders,” says Margolis.


Support for the study was provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA): NIEHS/EPA P01ES09600/R82702701, NIEHS/EPA P01ES09600/RD83214101, NIEHS/EPA P01ES09600/RD83450901, NIEHS R01ES08977, NIEHS R01ES015579; and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA R01DA027100, NIDA R01ES015282. The study was also made possible in part by the New York Community Trust, the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Foundations, and the John and Wendy Neu Foundation. The authors declare no conflicts.

Co-authors include Virginia Rauh, Julie Herbstman, Frederica Perera, Deliang Tang, Ya Wang, Shuang Wang, and Valerie Thomas from Columbia’s Mailman School; Katie Davis of Columbia University Medical Center; and Bradley Peterson from the University of Southern California.

3 thoughts on “Claim: Prenatal exposure to air pollution linked to impulsivity, emotional problems in children”

  1. Can I get funding for studying the effect of post natal exposure to dihydo monoxide on infant mortality and health???

    Seems like this would be as useful as all of the other data dredges I see coming out of these paragon of intellect today.

  2. Simply count, if you can, all the questions at issue. Also count the number of co-authors. I count 9. So we have 9 people dredging through the data asking whatever they can. This study has the looks of a multiple testing train wreck.

  3. I was born in 1947. That was before we “KNEW” all this “pollution” will kill, deform, stupefy, make you socially abnormal, turn you into a depraved maniac, well the list appears to be long. My grand parents burned coal in their house. It kept them warm when it was cold. They burned natural gas to cook with (and the pilot lights were always burning.) They burned trash out back in the alley. They lived to be 90 years old. Many of their peers lived to some pretty good ages, too.

    Now, I am glad that we got rid of a lot of smog and a few other things, but haven’t we reached the point of diminishing returns? (Like almost zero for the cost to “fix” it, in many instances.)

    Yes, I support child car seats, safety belts and lowered pollution, but, as with all these dangerous things, no one can reduce risk to zero. As Frank Schnell has said and others, our bodies can handle a lot of crap with little to no bad effects.

    My wife and I sort of have a mantra about this stuff. When something of this nature comes out, we look at each other and say, “It’s a wonder that we are still alive!”

    Like most of mankind, I guess we are survivors.

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