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Prenatal exposure to air pollution linked to cognitive difficulties

Children who are exposed to prenatal air pollution are more likely to experience cognitive difficulties, according to a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Air pollution has many known effects on physical health, and recent work has begun to show its negative effects on mental health in children.

According to researchers from the University of Columbia, life stress, particularly in early life, is one of the best-known contributors to mental health problems. 

So the researchers set out to investigate the effects of air pollution and early life stress on school-age children. 

In order to collect the data, a group of mothers were asked to wear air monitoring backpacks during their third trimester of pregnancy.

When their children were 5 years old, the mothers reported on stress in their lives, such as neighbourhood quality, material hardship, violence and lack of support. 

The mothers then reported on their child’s psychiatric symptoms at aged 5,7,9 and 11. 

Based on this data, the researchers found that the combined effects of air pollution and early life stress was seen across several measures of thought and attention problems when the children were aged 11. 

The researchers explain that air pollution and early life stress may have a ‘double hit’ on shared biological pathways which are connected to attention and thought problems, such as ADHD. 

Amy Margolis, PhD and assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University, said: ‘Air pollutants are common in our environment, particularly in cities, and given socioeconomic inequalities and environmental injustice, children growing up in disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to experience both life stress and exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.’ 

Julie Herbstman, associate professor of environmental health and director of the Centre for Children’s Environmental Health in Columbia, added: ‘These exposures have a combined effect on poor mental health outcomes and point to the importance of public health programmes that try to lessen exposure to these critical risk factors, to improve not only physical but psychological health.’ 

Air Quality News has reported on various research linking reduced air quality to mental health problems. 

Earlier this year (January 8) researchers found a link between exposure to NO2 and schizophrenia, and researchers from University College London also found a link between air pollution and depression and death by suicide.

Photo Credit – Pixabay 

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