Could my baby's brain be damaged by pollution exposure in the womb?

Yes, your baby’s brain could be damaged by pollution in the womb. Two new studies published recently bring grim news to new or soon-to-be new moms in urban areas. According to the studies, a baby's brain may be damaged by common air pollutants breathed by his mother while the baby is still in the womb.

The studies involving more than 400 pregnant women in two cities found that 5-year-olds exposed in the womb to above-average levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, score lower on IQ tests. The compounds, created by the burning of fossil fuels (in homes, factories, or from cars), are prevalent in urban environments.

One half of the study monitored almost 250 women and children in New York City for the effects of environmental contaminants. Across the Atlantic, in Krakow, Poland, another 214 children and moms participated in a parallel study.

The findings for both studies are as similar as they are disturbing: The children whose mothers had above-average exposure to PAHs scored about four points lower on IQ tests than children whose mothers had below-average exposure.

Recruited for the study between 1998 and 2006, the pregnant women in New York City and Krakow carried backpacks for 48 hours that contained equipment for measuring PAHs. Then their children were divided into high and low exposure groups—those above the median and below—and when they reached the age of 5, they underwent standardized tests to measure their cognitive skills.

In Krakow, most of the compounds come from coal burning for home heating and factories, while in New York City, exhaust from cars, trucks and buses was the major source.

Researchers note that the difference in IQs is small, but health experts say it is enough to hamper school performance and perhaps lifelong learning.

Continue Learning about Fetal Development Basics & Pregnancy

What immune defenses does the fetus have?
Dr. Michael Roizen, MDDr. Michael Roizen, MD
The fetus's first line of defense is a primitive form of immunity called toll-like receptors (TLRs)....
More Answers
How does the brain develop in a fetus?
Dr. Michael Roizen, MDDr. Michael Roizen, MD
During the first thirty days of pregnancy, the fetus's central nervous system begins to take sha...
More Answers
What is fetal movement?
Deborah Raines, MSNDeborah Raines, MSN
Throughout intrauterine life the developing fetus is flexing and extending its extremities and total...
More Answers
How does music affect a developing fetus?
We encourage you to listen to all kinds of music during and after pregnancy. This will help stimulat...
More Answers

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.