Prenatal Air Pollution Exposure Can Lower Kids’ IQs by 4 Points

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Lung cancer, heart disease, nausea, headaches, allergic reactions and chronic respiratory disease are just some of the adverse effects of air pollution. Now you can add less intelligent kids to the list. Two separate scientific studies, one conducted in New York City and the other in Poland, found that 5-year-olds exposed to above-average levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the womb score lower on IQ tests. The difference is about the same as the well-documented IQ drop caused by low-level lead exposure.

In New York City, 249 children are currently being monitored, while 214 are being monitored in the parallel Krakow, Poland study. Pregnant, mothers wore backpacks that detected the levels of PAHs for 48 hours to divide the women into high and low pollution exposure groups. Then at age five they gave standardized IQ tests. In both studies, the children of mothers who had above-average exposure to air pollution, or PAHs, while pregnant,  scored roughly 4 points lower than the kids whose moms had below-average exposure. Though the exposure levels to PAHs were eight times higher in Krakow than in NYC!

PAHs are common in urban environments. In New York City the top source is exhaust coming from buses, cars and trucks. In Poland, factories and home heating cause the most pollution of this kind.

Sure 4 points doesn’t sound like a lot, and it’s typically not something parents or teachers would notice. Average IQ scores fall somewhere between 90 and 109, so a 4-point swing could keep kids in the same average range pretty easily. However, the drop is enough to make a difference in both school performance and possibly, in lifelong learning.

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