Babies exposed to air pollution while in the womb may have brain abnormalities that contribute to cognitive problems when they become school-aged, even if the levels of pollution are considered safe.
A study, which was published in Biological Psychiatry, showed for the first time that pollution interfered with inhibitory control — the ability of a person to regulate impulsive behavior and their actions when faced with temptations. This ability is related to mental health problems such as addictive behavior and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Researchers found that exposure to fine particles before birth was associated with a thinner cortex — the outer layer of the brain — in several areas of both hemispheres.
The study enrolled pregnant women and followed their children — 783 of them — from fetal life onward. Researchers assessed air pollution levels at home during their fetal life and included levels of nitrogen dioxide and coarse and fine particles.
Their brains were studied using brain imaging performed when the children were between 6 and 10 years old.
The relationship between the exposure to fine particles, changes in brain structure, and a lack of inhibitory control was found even though the average residential levels of fine particles the babies were exposed to were well below the current EU limit. As a result, “We cannot warrant the safety of the current levels of air pollution in our cities,” said Dr. Mònica Guxens, lead author and researcher of ISGlobal and Erasmus University Medical Center.
“The observed cognitive delays at early ages could have significant long-term consequences such as increased risk of mental health disorders and low academic achievement,” she said.
Other recent studies have also pointed to the dangers of air pollution in other groups. Harvard researchers found that even short-term exposure to low levels of air pollution that are well below current safety standards raise the risk of premature death among senior citizens.
A Belgium study found that lung transplant recipients who live in areas with high levels of pollution or near busy roads face a 10 percent higher risk of organ rejection and death, according to researchers at the University of Leuven.
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