Air-Quality Study Shows Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Pollutants

Air-Quality Study Shows Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Pollutants

 An air-quality study suggests prenatal exposure to pollutants can have long-term negavtive effects

Michele Berger
Published: 04/22/2009

Happy Earth Day! For nearly four decades, we’ve annually devoted a day to taking stock of our planet and rededicating ourselves to its protection. Of course, halting further damage to the earth requires more than a 24-hour commitment once a year.

It necessitates pushing scientific boundaries and generating results that urge environmentally friendly policies. The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, in partnership with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, started working toward that goal in 1998, with a study measuring how air pollution and climate change contribute to health ailments in children.

New results from that research, which followed 728 Dominican and African-American mother-child pairs from pregnancy until the children were preteens, suggest that prenatal exposure to pollutants from vehicles, coal (for power generation) and pesticides can cause preterm births, low birth weight, long-term mental deficiencies, asthma, even a greater risk of cancer.

This is strong fodder for clean-air policy; the data have already helped shape decisions about chlorpyrifos, an insecticide banned for residential—but not agricultural—use and linked to developmental delays in children who were exposed to it while in the womb.

But the research also proves that a unique methodology can work: In addition to taking questionnaires and biological samples from participants—all of whom lived in Washington Heights, Harlem or the South Bronx—CCCEH researchers strapped onto these pregnant women backpacks that measured the air’s chemical make up for 48 hours.

It would seem challenging to recruit women in their third trimesters. But Frederica Perera, CCCEH director, says partnership with an advocacy group like the Harlem-based WE ACT helped. “They trusted the study,” Perera says of the participants. “They understood that we were concerned about what was out there in the environment and the community that might be harming children.”

Perera says the women receive financial compensation for their time, the rate of which depends on the child’s age and intensity of the commitment (every few months initially, then annually or every other year after the child’s first birthday). But she sidesteps additional questions about reimbursement, focusing more on the blood, breathing, and developmental delay test results CCCEH gives the families.

“We provide information about what they can do in their home environment to protect children,” she says, “and alternatives to using toxic materials.” The study’s 78% retention rate is high, she adds—perhaps a testament to the participants’ commitment to this cause. “Women have expressed real happiness and satisfaction at being part of this enterprise,” Perera says. “They feel full partners.”

You too can feel like a partner in cleaning up the environment by taking these simple steps (from CCCEH):

  • - Don’t smoke. Keep cigarette smoke away from children.
  • - Use a kitchen fan while cooking.
  • - Avoid burned, charred or blackened foods.
  • - Get involved in community efforts to clean up the air.
  • - Tell your local officials you want fewer trucks and buses allowed in residential neighborhoods.
  • - Campaign to prevent new waste transfer stations and power plants from opening near residential areas.

For more information, check out CCCEH's air pollution page or WE ACT's Get Active page.