Mothers’ Exposure to Air Pollution During Pregnancy Linked to Brain Dysfunctions in Children

A recently published study confirms what scientists have hypothesized for quite some time now. Children exposed to air pollution may suffer terrible long-term consequences. Not so long ago, we reported the findings of a study linking air pollution and shorter lifespan of babies.

The Risk of Brain Dysfunctions

The Dutch study we will focus on today shows that babies in their mothers’ wombs may be at an increased risk of having brain dysfunctions. This can further contribute to impaired cognitive function by school age. According to author Monica Guxens MD, from Barcelona Institute for Global Health, the research suggests that the exposure to air pollution and fine particles of the pregnant mothers correlates with the children’s cortex in several regions. These brain dysfunctions and abnormalities usually contribute to the exhibition of future cognitive and behavioral difficulties. These include low levels of inhibitory control, impulsive behaviors, mental health problems, addictive behaviors, ADHD, and more.

According to Guxens “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, in particular, due to the ubiquity of the exposure.”

Exposure to Air Pollution

The main problem is that the exposure to air pollution fell under the safety levels established by European Union regulations. In spite of the fact that the average residential levels of fine particles and residential levels of nitrogen dioxide were both at a safe level set by the EU, the test group (children between six and 10-years old whose pregnant mothers have been exposed to daily urban air pollution) showed abnormalities in the thickness of the brain cortex.

The researchers say it was bad enough that air pollution links to lung problems, heart, and other organs’ malfunctions. Now, there is evidence that school-age children’s brains may suffer structural and functional changes. This is due to the fumes that come from city traffic.

Correlation Between Exposure to Air Pollution and Brain Problems

Dr. John Krystal, the editor of Biological Psychiatry, admits that few studies have focused on the correlation between exposure to air pollution and fetal developmental brain problems. “Most of us have never considered the air pollution effects on the developing brain,” stated Krystal, only to continue to emphasize that “perhaps we should have learned from studies of maternal smoking that inhaling toxins may have lasting effects on cognitive development.”

The MRI scans of the children in the study come from the Netherlands, where the research was conducted. The Netherlands is a country known for its poor air quality. In some cities, the Dutch air quality even broke the EU standards. This became a model of bad practices for all European countries. The Netherlands has been required to meet EU rules on the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the air. Back in 2017, a surprising court order took the world by the storm. A judge ordered the Netherlands government to do more to rein in air pollution. Back in the day, this court rule was a major victory for activists who filed a civil case seeking measures to ensure cleaner air. On the other hand, the Netherlands is a country playing by the rules. It is likely that they will soon respond appropriately to reduce air pollution and comply with the current pollution satisfactory limits.


However, given the fact that the average residential levels of fine particles in the study were well below the current acceptable limits set by the EU, the findings beg one question. What happens with the children in other countries that have more relaxed policies regarding air pollution? How severe are their cognitive or behavioral deficiencies?

According to the study’s author, “Although specific individual clinical implications of these findings cannot be quantified, based on other studies, the observed cognitive delays at early ages could have significant long-term consequences”. The specialists agree that these results add to the previous studies’ findings. They have correlated acceptable air pollution levels with other health complications, including deficient fetal development and cognitive decline.

The current levels of air pollution, even if deemed safe, cannot ensure the safety of people living in urban environments. It would be interesting to learn if exposure to air pollution negatively affects fetal development in other countries as well. This would include both the ones rigged with pollution and the ones standing out as models of good practices. Until further, more expanded and statistically valid results will come in, all we can do is become more and more aware of the negative effects of air pollution to human health and try to go greener one step at a time, every day.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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