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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Columbia: Mix of Stress and Air Pollution May Lead to Cognitive Difficulties in Children

Children with elevated exposure to early life stress in the home and elevated prenatal exposure to air pollution exhibited heightened symptoms of attention and thought problems, according to researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia Psychiatry. Early life stress is common in youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who also often live in areas with greater exposure to air pollution.

Air pollution has negative effects on physical health, and recent work has begun to also show negative effects on mental health. Life stress, particularly early in life, is one of the best-known contributors to mental health problems. The new study is one of the first to examine the combined effects of air pollution and early life stress on school-age children. Results appear in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

“These exposures point to the importance of public health programs that try to lessen exposure to these critical risk factors, to improve not only physical, but psychological health,” says Dr. Julie Herbstman, associate professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia Mailman.

Data were from the CCCEH Mothers and Newborns longitudinal birth cohort study in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. Mothers wore an air monitoring backpack during the third trimester of pregnancy to measure exposure to air pollutants in their daily lives. When their children were 5 years old, mothers reported on stress in their lives, and then reported on their child’s psychiatric symptoms at ages 5, 7, 9 and 11.

The combined effect of air pollution and early life stress was seen across several measures of thought and attention problems/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at age 11.

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