Air pollution makes our kids dumber and sicker

Two recent studies suggest that air pollution at levels common in urban areas causes children to have higher rates of a potentially fatal lung infection and reduces the IQ levels of the kids exposed most heavily in the womb.

All this happens at air-pollution levels common in urban areas. 

The finding about the dumber kids exposed in the womb comes out of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environ­mental Health in New York City, where scientists equipped expectant mothers to wear air-pollution monitors as they went about their daily routine.

One finding, outlined in Scientific American this week and much earlier on a site called Pregnant women who experienced the highest exposures to pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons had children with IQ scores four points lower on average than kids born to less-exposed mothers. SciAm's Sunny Sea Gold's story says there's more from another study:

Children’s growing brains are not the only ones affected by this dirty air. A 2008 study in 20- to 50-year-olds conducted jointly by the schools of public health at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pinpointed ozone-related reductions in attention, short-term memory and reaction times equivalent to up to 3.5 to five years of age-related decline.

Meanwhile, here in Rain City, MSNBC and Discovery News bring us the tale of  University of Washington researcher Catherine Karr, who just released a study stating that ongoing exposures to air pollution increases a baby's chances of coming down with a lung infection called bronchiolitis.

Pollution from cars makes our kids dumber

In-womb exposure to components of air pollution can depress childrens' IQ scores about as much as exposure to lead, new research shows.

In fact, it might cause as much of a diminution of intelligence as fetal alcohol syndrome, according to a Science News story by Janet Raloff.  The research by Columbia University's Frederica Perera traced exposure of expectant mothers in New York City's Harlem, South Bronx and Washington Heights neighborhoods to components of auto exhaust known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbonsscience-news-cover-august-07. (I can say that five times fast -- can you?)

The exposed children showed an average IQ drop of 4.3 points. While that doesn't sound like much unless it's your own child, Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University, just up the road in Vancouver, B.C., told Raloff that if one extrapolates that across the whole United States:

A downward shift in IQ by 5 points will increase by 3.5 million the number of children who meet the criteria for mental retardation.

It's a pretty clear case of a situation where controlling the pollution would be cheaper for society in the long run, Raloff writes.

Perera's paper was one of several discussed this week at a National Academies of Science workshop that also touched on how car-based pollutants can spark athsma, and how contaminants can turn genes on and off even if they don't outright damage DNA.

The workshop, covered in a wide-ranging story by Bette Hileman in Environmental Health News, delved into whether pollutants might be doing damage by turning off genes, or turning them on at the wrong time in an organism's development.