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B.C. researchers find possible solution to pollution’s impact on children’s brain development

New study shows in home air filters can improve child brain development by reducing air toxins
Photo of child working on a worksheet (Pixabay image).

A first–of–its kind study has found possible solutions to reduce the impacts of pollution on child brain development.

Simon Fraser University researchers collaborated with U.S. and Mongolian scientists to study the benefits of using in-home air filters to reduce exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and assessed the impact on children’s intelligence.

According to the research, published Wednesday (June 22), children born to mothers who had used air cleaners had an average full-scale intelligence quotient that was 2.8 points higher than the group that did not use an air cleaner during pregnancy.

Starting in 2014, the team recruited 540 pregnant women in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to participate in the study. Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air quality in the world, well-exceeding guidelines set by the World Health Organization.

Women participants were less than 18 weeks into their pregnancies and non-smokers who had not previously used air filtering devices in their homes. The intervention group of women were provided with one or two air cleaning filters and encouraged to run them continuously for the duration of their pregnancies. Air cleaners were removed from the home once the child was born.

Afterwards, researchers measured the children’s full-scale intelligence quotient at four years old, using the Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, which provides insight into a child’s learning capacity.

Results indicated that reducing exposure to air pollution during pregnancy could improve children’s cognitive development around the world, a news release said.

“These results, combined with evidence from previous studies, strongly implicate air pollution as a threat to brain development,” said Ryan Allen, professor of environmental health in SFU’s faculty of health sciences. “But the good news is that reducing exposure had clear benefits.”

Children in the intervention group also had significantly greater average verbal comprehension index scores, which is consistent with results from previous observational studies, a news release said. The research suggests that a child’s verbal skills may be particularly sensitive to air pollution exposure.

The study explains the prenatal period and the first year of life are key phases in the development of neural networks due to the vital stages of brain development. Without detoxification technology, research suggests the developing brain is particularly vulnerable to pollution/chemicals. If pollution impairs a critical, time-dependent process in the developing brain, there is little chance for repair, researchers said.

The findings suggests the population-level impact of air pollution on brain development could be substantive even if the individual-level effects are modest. More than 90 per cent of the world’s population breathes air with particulate matter concentrations above the WHO guidelines.

“Air pollution is everywhere, and it is preventing children from reaching their full potential,” said Allen. “Air cleaners may provide some protection, but ultimately the only way to protect all children is to reduce emissions.”