Air Pollution Linked to Attention Problems And Anxiety in Children

Last week, new research was posted online linking a type of air pollution to behavioral problems in children.

The study, from Columbia University’s School of Public Health, followed inner city children exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a type of pollution resulting from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels like diesel, gas, and coal.

Researchers measured exposure to this air pollutant while the children were still in their mother’s wombs, using two strategies: personal air monitors worn by the pregnant moms-to-be, as well as the presence of biological markers in umbilical cord blood measured after the babies were born.

Seven years later, the researchers evaluated the behavior of the 253 children using a detailed assessment filled out by the mothers. They found that exposure to PAH was correlated with attention problems and anxiety.

All of the babies in this trafficked, urban environment were exposed to PAHs. But those children who had higher measured levels of exposure were more likely to exhibit attention problems and anxiety, even after accounting for other sources of PAH pollution, such as cigarette smoke.

This new research indicates that general levels of air pollution, the kind of pollution regularly encountered in urban environments in the major population centers of our country, were correlated with children’s behavior, emotional well-being, and ability to learn – years later.

As a mom, I hear new theories practically daily to explain why kids act the way they act. It seems that parents are eager for the elusive theory of everything – the one input that can explain every output. Whether it’s sugar, screen time, or socioeconomic status, we are searching to find the key that will allow us to prevent learning disabilities, bullying, early puberty, tummy aches, and disinterest in school, all in one shot. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

This new research on PAH exposure reminds me that our parenting puzzles are complex. Our children’s ability to learn, and their emotional well-being, may be determined by sometimes counter-intuitive factors.

Air pollution and anxiety? It’s unexpected – and it’s preventable.

Here are things that will help reduce PAH exposure: clean up our car fleet, clean up our truck fleet, smoke less cigarettes, burn less wood, burn less coal.

We need scientists willing to think outside the boundaries of our well-worn this-explains-everything culprit, whether it’s poor school systems, artificial food coloring, birth order, economic injustice, vaccines, parental disharmony, too little time outside, processed foods, or fill-in-the-blank.

And although there’s no one explanation for our children’s problems, when we do find links, such as those between air pollution and behavior problems, we need a committed army of moms determined to make our children’s health a national priority. Please join Moms Clean Air Force and let’s get started.

Full disclosure: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health is my alma mater.


Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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