Household Air Pollution May Lower Children's Cognitive Skills

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Chronic prenatal exposure to woodsmoke may reduce children's neurobehavioral performance, a study by UC Berkeley researchers has found.

In 2010, scientists enrolled a sample of 39 mothers and their children ages 6 and 7 years who previously participated in RESPIRE, a randomized, longitudinal study that examined the incidence of acute lower respiratory infections and lung development in a cohort of over 500 children living in rural highland Guatemala. A portion of households in RESPIRE were given planchas ― stoves designed to reduce air pollution from biomass fuel ― as a health intervention. The other households continued to use traditional, unventilated stoves until the study child's 18th month of life, by which time, all households received planchas.

Lead study author Linda Dix-Cooper found an association between higher personal carbon monoxide concentrations, a marker for chronic woodsmoke exposure, assessed among mothers during their third trimester of pregnancy and lower neurobehavioral scores on four tests on their children 7 years later. More specifically, children tended to score worse on visio-spatial integration, both short and long-term memory recall, and fine motor performance with higher prenatal exposure to woodsmoke, according to scientists.1

Although studies of adults and children have reported that CO is a neurotoxicant at high exposure levels, this article from COEH researchers is the first to examine its effects from prenatal exposure to woodsmoke on childhood cognitive performance. Study authors suggest future studies with larger sample sizes are needed to replicate their results.

Dix-Cooper was an MS student in the Global Health and Environment Program in the Environmental Health Sciences department at UC Berkeley. Her research was supported by a COEH Llewellyn Student Award, National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at UC Berkeley.

COEH co-authors include Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health and director of the Global Health and Environment MS program, and Brenda Eskenazi, professor of epidemiology, both from UC Berkeley School of Public Health. John Balmes, director of COEH and professor of medicine in UCSF's Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, is also a co-author.

1Dix-Cooper L, Eskenazi B, Romero C, Balmes J, Smith KR. Neurodevelopmental performance among school age children in rural Guatemala is associated with prenatal and postnatal exposure to carbon monoxide, a marker for exposure to woodsmoke. Neurotoxicology. 2011 Sep 24 ahead of print.

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