In a separate study by Chinese researchers, industrial air pollution is being linked with alterations in DNA’s of newborns. That is, when the mothers were exposed to air pollution brought by industrial plants during pregnancy, their newborns were later observed to have shorter telomeres, which are specific sections in our chromosomes carrying the DNA.
Now, a new study links residential level air pollution to cognitive impairment and brain abnormalities in newborns. That means, even when pregnant women are exposed to air pollution levels currently considered to be safe, their newborns are still at risk of irreversible brain damage.
“We observed brain development effects in relationship to fine particles levels below the current EU limit. Therefore, we cannot warrant the safety of the current levels of air pollution in our cities,” explained Mònica Guxens, MD of Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in Spain, who is also the lead author of the study.
This result of the study, which was conducted in Netherlands and published in Biological Psychiatry, means that the currently defined safe levels in air pollution might not be actually safe at all. In particular, it affects negatively the outer layer of newborn’s brain linked with cognitive impairment and abnormalities in brain functions, and mental health.
“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,” explained further in a press release.
A brief description of the study’s methodology is as follows: “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.”
The study suggests that we need to revisit the current air pollution limits in order to protect the future generation’s brain functions and mental capabilities. As the editor of the journal Biological Psychiatry, John Krystal, MD, said, “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.”