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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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New studies offer insight into effects of air pollution on children

By Eddy Ball

Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health Logo

Along with better education by clinicians, parents can take measures at home to improve air quality, such as eliminating mold, secondhand smoke, and other components of indoor air pollution. CCCEH provides free information online about ways to make homes healthier.

Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H.

Perera plans to follow the children in her study through age 12, so that subsequent testing will provide additional insights into the longer term development outcomes of children in the cohort. (Photo courtesy of Columbia University)

Matthew Perzanowski, Ph.D.

Perzanowski noted that the unequal distribution of incomplete combustion byproduct sources within a single city leads to differences of exposure even among communities with similar socioeconomic status. Perera and several members of the CCCEH were co-authors on the study. (Photo courtesy of Columbia University)

Two new NIEHS-funded studies, led by researchers at Columbia University (CU), link urban air pollution with asthma risk and behavioral problems in children. In their conclusions, both research teams called for action and further study of these important environmental public health problems, as a step toward primary prevention. 

The studies were led by faculty in CU’s NIEHS-funded Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) — assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences Matthew Perzanowski, Ph.D., an asthma specialist, and CCCEH Director Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H.

Air pollution and health in two New York cohorts

The first study, led by Perzanowski and published online in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, studied air pollution from truck traffic and low-quality residual oil use, specifically airborne black carbon (BC) in indoor air and the respiratory health of children in the NYC [New York City] Neighborhood Asthma and Allergy Study. The researchers found an association between BC and high asthma prevalence neighborhoods, where as many as 18 percent of young children have the condition.

The second study, led by Perera, reported a significant association between prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and attention deficit and symptoms of anxiety and depression among children ages 6-7 in the CCCEH longitudinal cohort study. The findings appeared online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Black carbon — incomplete combustion of diesel and heating oil

Perzanowski’s team measured fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO), a marker of subclinical changes in airway inflammation characteristic of asthma, in its cohort of 240 children ages 7-8. The researchers also collected and analyzed samples of bed dust and black carbon during home visits.

The researchers also used GIS data to characterize truck traffic and heating oil patterns for high asthma prevalence neighborhoods (11-18 percent) and low asthma prevalence neighborhoods (3-9 percent). They found a strong association between airborne BC in homes and both neighborhood asthma prevalence and FeNO, adding support to calls for regulations in New York to further reduce the burning of low-grade oil for domestic heating.

Exposure to PAH from fossil fuel, tobacco, and other organic material

In addition to assessments of child behavior using the Child Behavior Checklist, a widely-used method of identifying problem behavior in children, Perera’s group estimated prenatal PAH exposure by personal air monitoring during pregnancy and measured DNA adducts in maternal cord blood specific to benzo[a]pyrene, a representative PAH that can cross the placental barrier. The team used an investigator-administered questionnaire to collect demographics, health, environment, and dietary PAH at several time points, beginning with the last trimester of pregnancy.

In this first report of associations between child attention and behavioral problems, and two complementary specific measures of prenatal PAH exposure, the researchers followed 253 children in utero to ages 6-7, expanding earlier findings of developmental delays and risk for reduced IQ among children exposed to PAHs.

Focus on prevention through regulation and healthier homes

In comments about their studies, the researchers offered guidance to parents and physicians about ways to prevent the adverse effects of exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution, while strengthening the case for new government regulations to help protect the respiratory and neurobehavioral health of children in New York.

“This study adds to the evidence that further public health interventions on oil and truck emissions standards and the use of dirty oil may be warranted,” Perzanowski argued in a CU press release. “I think clinicians should be aware of the information about these environmental pollutants and should provide helpful tips to their patients,” Perera also observed in another CU press release.

In addition to supplemental grant and foundation support, the studies were funded by a number of NIEHS grants, including ones led by Perzanowski, “Risk Factors Accounting for Neighborhood Differences in Asthma Prevalence,” and Perera, “Developmental Effects of Early-life Exposure to Airborne PAHs.”


Cornell AG, Chillrud SN, Mellins RB, Acosta LM, Miller RL, Quinn JW, Yan B, Divjan A, Olmedo OE, Lopez-Pintado S, Kinney PL, Perera FP, Jacobson JS, Goldstein IF, Rundle AG, Perzanowski MS. 2012. Domestic airborne black carbon and exhaled nitric oxide in children in NYC. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol; doi: 10.1038/jes.2012.3 [Online 29 February 2012].

Perera FP, Tang D, Wang S, Vishnevetsky J, Zhang B, Diaz D, Camann D, Rauh V. 2012. Prenatal Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) Exposure and Child Behavior at age 6-7. Environ Health Perspect; doi: 10.1289/ehp.1104315 [Online 22 March 2012].

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