Air Pollution Exposure During Pregnancy Linked to Emotional and Behavioral Problems in Childhood


Prenatal exposure to air pollution, known as PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), is associated with ADHD symptoms, anxiety, inattention, and poor self-regulation in children, according to a new study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health found that the common emissions from motor vehicles, power generation, smoking, and coal may lead to poor social skills and difficulty managing emotions and impulses.

“This study indicates that prenatal exposure to air pollution impacts development of self-regulation and as such may underlie the development of many childhood psychopathologies that derive from deficits in self-regulation, such as ADHD, OCD, substance use disorders, and eating disorders,” wrote Amy Margolis, assistant professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

The researchers checked the maternal blood samples of 462 mothers and tracked their children through early childhood. The children were tested every two years from ages 3 to 11 for emotional self-regulation and behaviors.

Children who had a high exposure to PAH during pregnancy had significantly worse scores on emotional self-regulation by age nine than those with only a moderate exposure to PAH. While those in the low-exposure group showed improvement over time, those with high PAH exposure did not improve.

The researchers suggest that prenatal exposure to air pollution may damage neural circuits, contributing to the rise of childhood mental health problems.



Margolis, A.E., Herbstman, J.B., Davis, K.S., Thomas, V.K., Tang, D., Wang, Y., Wang, S., Perera, F.P., Peterson, B.S. and Rauh, V.A., 2016. Longitudinal effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on self‐regulatory capacities and social competence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. (Abstract)


  1. This is totally flawed.

    Growing up in the city instead of in the country is associated with ADHD symptoms, anxiety, inattention, and poor self-regulation in children.

    Of course kids who live in a boring city apartment instead of out in the country with dogs and trees to climb and fun places to play are going to have more problems.

    It has nothing to do with trace amounts of air pollution.

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    • Ah, but it does, and isn’t responsive to drug treatments. That’s why conventional psychiatry will never recognize such things, but medicate such patients into the zombie world instead of trying to correct their patients’ biophysical environment.. You are right about unpolluted air, water and food being therapeutic.

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  2. Between the crowds and the noise and the pressure, city life often seems to set one’s brain on edge. Turns out that could literally be true.

    A study of German college students suggests that urbanite brains are more susceptible to stress, particularly social stress, than those of country dwellers.

    By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.

    So why is it that the larger the settlement you live in, the more likely you are to become mentally ill? Another German researcher and clinician, Dr Mazda Adli, is a keen advocate of one theory, which implicates that most paradoxical urban mixture: loneliness in crowds.

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  3. Very glad to see studies like this being done. The toxic chemical soup of urban environments is certain to have an impact on developing brains and gut microbiomes. And in farming regions the herbicide and pesticide load will have an impact on behaviour as well. And then again in industrial regions where water, land, and air are poisoned by heavy industry, factories, and resource development. Hard to be optimistic! Thanks to MIA for posting.

    Liz Sydney

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