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Toddlers exposed to prenatal air pollution linked to lower cognition, CU Boulder study finds

A wide-angled view of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, blanketed in wildfire smoke, creating a hazy view of the city.
Courtesy of Utah Fire Info
Wildfire smoke hangs over downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 6, 2021. The West has seen air pollution from wildfire smoke increase over the years, putting expecting mothers at risk for high levels of prenatal pollution.

New research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows a concerning link between air pollution and brain development.

A study published on Jan. 24, 2023, showed that toddlers whose mothers were exposed to high levels of pollution during mid- to late-pregnancy were prone to lower cognitive scores.

The researchers followed 161 Latino mothers with infants in Southern California. They used EPA data to calculate the mothers’ past exposure to air pollution from roadside traffic, industry and wildfire smoke. Their children were tested at age 2 for cognition, motor coordination and language skills. Researchers found that 16% of the toddlers had scores that indicated some degree of impairment, with those exposed to the highest levels of prenatal pollution having the lowest scores.

For example, the study showed that 2-year-olds exposed to inhalable particulate matter (tiny particles found in dust and smoke known as PM10) at the 75th percentile scored roughly three points lower than those exposed at the 25th percentile.

Tanya Alderete, an assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder who led the study, said pollution can increase inflammation and stress on an unborn child.

“We need to be aware that the things that we’re doing to the planet that results in climate change and greater exposure in humans, and particularly impacting certain communities disproportionately, has health-associated effects,” Alderete said.

She said pregnant women can reduce risks by staying indoors when the air quality is unhealthy and using an air purifier at home.

Alderete added that being exposed to high pollution levels while pregnant does not guarantee that a child will have poor neurodevelopmental outcomes.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 90% of the world’s population is exposed to particulate matter levels exceeding its recommended levels for healthy air. Moreover, air pollution is responsible for around 7 million premature deaths annually.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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