Study links air quality to brain development in children

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Wednesday, scientists from Simon Fraser University published the results of a multi-year study performed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in which they conclude that reducing the amount of fine particulate matter contaminating the air in a pregnant woman's environment is associated with better cognitive performance in the child at the age of four years. They have named the work the Ulaanbaatar Gestation and Air Pollution Research study (UGAAR).

The scientists randomly divided 540 pregnant women who did not smoke into two groups. They gave each of the 268 woman in the intervention group one or two high-efficiency portable air filter cleaners during her pregnancy. The 272 other women were not given air cleaners.

The air cleaners were designed to remove fine particulate matter from the air. Fine particulate matter is any airborne particle smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Previous studies have shown fine particulate matter to be associated with smaller fetuses and shorter pregnancies.

The research team then assessed the cognitive abilities of the surviving children at a median age of 4 years, 233 in the intervention group and 242 in the control group. Children who had died and pregnancies that did not end in live births were not counted. The researchers found that, as measured using the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Fourth Edition, the children from the intervention group scored a median of 2.5 points higher in terms of full-scale intelligence quotient (out of 100 possible points). This rose to 2.8 or 3.0 when the scientists adjusted for other factors.

"These results, combined with evidence from previous studies, strongly implicate air pollution as a threat to brain development," said study co-author Ryan Allen.

More than half of the residents of Ulaanbaatar live in wood, brick or yurt-style homes that they heat with coal. The city's air quality is very poor, with a particulate matter concentration of more than 50 microliters per cubic meter, which is ten times the World Health Organization's recommended upper limit. All the participants in the study lived in apartments at the time it began.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research paid for the study.