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Pollution, Public Health, Transportation

Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) exposure and child behavior at age 6-7

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In cities large and small, automobiles are a nearly inescapable facet of contemporary life. While car use can have a number of positive benefits, there are substantial negatives as well, including congestion, crashes, risks to pedestrians and cyclists, and pollution.

A 2012 Columbia University study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, “Prenatal Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) Exposure and Child Behavior at Age 6-7,” involved 253 mother/child pairs in New York City. The researchers monitored the subjects’ exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, one of the chief elements of automotive exhaust, to assess the possible links between prenatal exposure to pollutants and eventual child behavioral outcomes.

Results of the study include:

  • All 253 mothers were found to have some level of exposure to PAH in their daily life.
  • Higher levels of PAH exposure were associated with a 24% higher score of anxiety/depression for children ages 6 to 7 than those with low exposure levels.
  • Infants found to have elevated PAH levels in their umbilical cord blood were 46% more likely to eventually score highly on the anxiety/depression scale than those with low PAH levels in cord blood.
  • Exposure to PAH was found to have a similar effect to tobacco smoke exposure in terms of children’s likelihood to develop anxiety/depression.

“The results suggest an adverse impact of prenatal PAH exposure on child behavior that could impact cognitive development and ability to learn,” the researchers conclude. “Anxiety, depression and attention problems, which were associated with PAH exposure … have been shown to affect subsequent academic performance.” They suggest a variety of ways to reduce airborne PAH concentrations, including pollution controls, use of alternative sources of energy and regulatory intervention.

Tags: cars, children, pollution, tfossil fuels

    Writer: | Last updated: April 10, 2012

    Citation: Perera, FP; et al. "Prenatal Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) Exposure and Child Behavior at Age 6-7 Years," Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2012, Vol. 120, No. 6, 921-926, doi: 10.1289/ehp.1104315.

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    Media analysis

    Read the study-related Time magazine article titled "Mom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems.”

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
    2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups, business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled "Prenatal Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) Exposure and Child Behavior at Age 6-7."

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?