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The impact of maternal distress during pregnancy and air pollutants on the child

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According to a study led by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, maternal exposure to air pollution and psychological distress during pregnancy have a harmful effect on the child. According to researchers, maternal psychological distress, defined as the mother’s ability to cope with stressful situations, is associated with a range of behavioral problems of the child such as depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior etc. It was shown that the most significant behavior problems occur in children who were exposed during pregnancy to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons ( PAH).

This is the first study to investigate the relationship between PAH found in the air breathed by the mother during pregnancy and maternal psychological distress and its effect on the child. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are pollutants resulting from combustion engines of motor vehicles, coal-burning, domestic heating, cigarette smoke, etc and have an adverse effect on health. Even though  in Krakow, Poland, where the study was conducted, the level of PAH is quite high, though, it does not exceed the level found in other urban centers. Dr Perera noted that exposure to air pollution is practically everywhere and usually occurs with socioeconomic disadvantage and maternal psychological distress.


Frederica Perera , PhD, director of the Center and lead author of the study, explained that this study shows that combined exposure to psychological distress and psychosocial stressors during fetal development amplify the harmful effect on the child. She added that the results are concerning because it was showed that attention problems , anxiety and depression affect the relationships with friends, academic performance and well-being of children.

The study was conducted on a sample of 248 mother-child pairs that were followed from pregnancy to the age of 9. To assess the effect of pollutants on the child during fetal development, researchers took air samples during pregnancy to investigate prenatal exposure to PAH. Behavioral problems were assessed using the Child Behavioral Checklist and involved completion of a questionnaire by mothers on their children’s behavior . Also, maternal demoralization was associated with socioeconomic factors such as maternal hardship.

Studies on the relationship between exposure to air pollution during fetal development and their effects on the behavior of the child have been conducted so far, but the present study investigates the combined impact of exposure to air pollution and maternal distress on the child. “The findings support policy interventions to reduce air pollution exposure in urban areas as well as programs to screen women early in pregnancy to identify those in need of psychological or material support”, Dr Perera said.