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Air Quality

Air Pollution Exposure During Fetal Development Linked With Brain Abnormalities & Cognitive Impairment In New Study

Exposure to common levels of residential air pollution during fetal development is linked with cognitive impairment and the presence of brain abnormalities, a new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry has found.

Exposure to common levels of residential air pollution during fetal development is linked with cognitive impairment and the presence of brain abnormalities, a new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry has found.

In other words, when pregnant women are exposed to levels of air pollution that are common in many urban areas, the children that they give birth to are more likely to experience impaired cognitive function (apparently via the development of physical brain abnormalities). To be clear, though, the research itself was simply related to the association of brain abnormalities and air pollution exposure.

What’s most notable is that the levels of residential air pollution in question (which were in the Netherlands) are below the levels currently considered to be “safe.” So, clearly, “safe” levels of air pollution may in fact not be safe, as a number of earlier studies on related topics have also suggested.

“We observed brain development effects in relationship to fine particles levels below the current EU limit,” explained lead author Mònica Guxens, MD, of Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in Spain. “Therefore, we cannot warrant the safety of the current levels of air pollution in our cities.”

The press release provides more: “Exposure to fine particles during fetal life was associated with a thinner outer layer of the brain, called the cortex, in several regions. The study showed that these brain abnormalities contribute in part to difficulty with inhibitory control — the ability to regulate self-control over temptations and impulsive behavior — which is related to mental health problems such as addictive behavior and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”

Now that doesn’t sound familiar, does it? I wonder just what behaviors are more common in urban areas than in rural ones, what behaviors seem to have become more and more common as urban areas and pollution have expanded over recent decades, and what health outcomes are known to be the case among those living close to coal-fired power plants.


“The study used a population-based cohort in the Netherlands, which enrolled pregnant women and followed the children from fetal life onward. Dr Guxens and colleagues assessed air pollution levels at home during the fetal life of 783 children. The data were collected by air pollution monitoring campaigns, and included levels of nitrogen dioxide (a prominent air pollutant caused by traffic and cigarette smoking), coarse particles, and fine particles.

“Brain imaging performed when the children were between 6 and 10 years old revealed abnormalities in the thickness of the brain cortex of the precuneus and rostral middle frontal region. Despite the relationship between these brain structure alterations and fine particle exposure, the average residential levels of fine particles in the study were well below the current acceptable limit set by the EU — only 0.5% of the pregnant women in the study were exposed to levels considered unsafe. The average residential levels of nitrogen dioxide were right at the safe limit.”

Based on these findings, and numerous others in recent times, it’s clear that air pollution levels currently considered to be “safe” are in fact dangerous, and that the total health burden of such pollution is much, much higher than is currently supposed.

The editor at Biological Psychiatry, John Krystal (MD), stated: “Air pollution is so obviously bad for lungs, heart, and other organs that most of us have never considered its effects on the developing brain. But perhaps we should have learned from studies of maternal smoking that inhaling toxins may have lasting effects on cognitive development.”

The fundamental takeaway of this research is that exposure to levels of air pollution that are currently considered to be safe during fetal development results in permanent brain damage.

As noted in some of my earlier coverage of related research, the reality at this point is that there is no lack of knowledge when it comes to the extremely negative effect that air pollution has on human health, and on society as a whole. The research is all there, and what’s needed now is the existence of some kind of political will to actually do something about it.

While some actions have been taken to date — plans for the banning of diesel cars in various cities, and more importantly plans for the banning of all internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from some city centers — they represent just a drop in the bucket. Considering the implications of studies such as the one discussed above, actions would need to become far more extensive and severe if air pollution levels were tobe reduced to levels that are actually “safe” over even the mid-term (near-term solutions are non-existent).

Image courtesy US EPA

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Written By

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.


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