Exposure to air pollution is linked to a variety of physical health issues, including short-term infections and irritation, and long-term issues like bronchitis and asthma. New research at Columbia University suggests that there may be even more insidious effects of air pollution on unborn children, particularly on their ability to regulate emotions and behavior.

The new study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, was the first to look at early-life exposure to PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and study its impacts on childhood behavior. PAHs are widespread air pollutants, and are commonly emitted by vehicles, coal plants, industrial manufacturing facilities, and waste incinerators. Due to disparate siting of such facilities in low-income and minority communities, children from these communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of PAHs, which range from cancer to a variety of behavioral issues.

The recent study measured the levels of particular ‘biomarkers’ – compounds that are produced in the body as a result of PAH exposure – in the blood of mothers from New York City. They found that children of mothers with high exposure to PAHs had significantly worse scores on a test that measures behavior and emotional regulation in children. Essentially, PAH exposure may be a predictor of a variety of mental health problems in children and young adults. One study author was quoted in the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health press release:

“This study indicates that prenatal exposure to air pollution…may underlie the development of [childhood psychiatric problems] such as ADHD, OCD, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.”

The study particularly focused on women from low-income and minority communities, who are at greater risk of exposure to PAHs. Based on the study, increased exposure to PAHs faced by environmental justice communities may leave the next generation susceptible to not only physical health risks, but also behavioral and emotional issues.

To read more about research at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, visit their webpage.