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Mailman School Study Finds Birth Outcomes Adversely Affected by Exposure to Environmental Pollutants Found in NYC

Frederica Perera

Environmental pollutants in New York City, including combustion by-products in air and a commonly used pesticide, adversely impact fetal development, according to the results of a study conducted by Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. The Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) at the Mailman School studied a sample of more than 250 non-smoking African American and Dominican women in Washington Heights, Central Harlem and the South Bronx and found that the effects of prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) was associated with lower birth weight and smaller head circumference. PAH is a very common pollutant that enters our environment when combustion occurs -- auto exhaust, incineration, power plants and tobacco smoke. This is the first study to use personal air monitors worn by the women during pregnancy to assess the effects of prenatal exposures on birth outcomes.

Among African Americans, high PAH was associated with a nine percent reduction in birth weight and with a decline in head circumference of two percent. While the personal air concentrations did not differ significantly between ethnic groups, effects of PAH were generally less favorable and more variable in African-American women compared to Dominicans.

"The association of PAH with smaller head circumference and decreased birth weight seen among African Americans in the present study is of potential concern because several lines of evidence suggest an association across race/ethnic groups between these kinds of outcomes and lower I.Q. as well as poorer cognitive functioning," says Frederica Perera, director of the CCCEH and professor of environmental health sciences at the Mailman School. "The greatest decrements are seen among the smallest babies."

Additionally, the study found that prenatal exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos (CPF), measured by levels of the pesticide in umbilical cord blood from the newborn, was associated with decreased birth weight and birth length in both African Americans and Dominicans. Perera says, "Fortunately, residential use of CPF has been phased out, and our research results show the exposures have been dropping dramatically. However, until recently, chlorpyrifos was one of the most heavily applied pesticides throughout New York State and in Manhattan in recent years." The study will be following children in the cohort to understand the meaning of these birth outcomes on child development.

Perera and her team used a relatively new approach to conduct their research -- molecular epidemiology -- which combines biomarkers with epidemiologic methods to obtain precise information on the biologic dose, preclinical effects, and genetic susceptibility to environmental contaminants. The biomarkers, in conjunction with personal monitoring, are helping the researchers to understand the relationships between prenatal exposures and health impacts.

Parallel studies of the effects of environmental pollutants on mothers and newborns in Krakow, Poland and in the Czech Republic, also conducted by Perera and her colleagues, found similar associations between birth outcomes and PAH-induced DNA damage.

Other key investigators on this study are Virginia Rauh and Robin Whyatt.

The complete findings of the study will be published in the February 2003 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Published: Jan 23, 2003
Last modified: Jan 24, 2003

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