Newborns exposed to air pollution may have shortened telomeres, reducing longevity and increasing risk of health problems

A study has found that prenatal exposure to air pollution due to coal burning may negatively impact telomere length of newborn babies, which may lead to an increased risk of chronic diseases later in life. Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health arrived at this conclusion by investigating the effects of a coal-burning power plant in Tongliang, China before and after it was shut down.

  • Telomere length was studied using the umbilical cord blood samples of 255 newborns. As for the newborns, half of them were born before the plant closed down and the other half were conceived and born after.
  • The babies were also evaluated to determine the link between telomere length and PAH-DNA adducts, a biomarker for exposure, as well as BDNF, which is a protein involved in neuronal growth).
  • Upon reaching two years, they were observed using the development quotient scores from Gesell tests. This was done to ascertain whether there was a relationship between their telomere length and their current development as seen in the analyses.
  • Researchers found higher levels of PHA-DNA adducts in babies who were born before the plant was closed. The adducts indicated that the newborns were exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which is a toxic component of air pollution from plants. This was correlated to shorter telomeres for babies, as well as lower levels of BDNF. While telomere length was not directly linked to Gesell test scores, the researchers believe that this may still indicate related neurodevelopmental problems later in life.
  • Through the findings, researchers believe that the shutdown of the plant was advantageous regarding maintaining the health of newborns who will be born in the area.

Through the study, the researchers found a connection between elevated levels of air pollution and their long-term effects on prenatal development.

Journal Reference:

Perera F, Lin C-J, Qu L, Tang D. SHORTER TELOMERE LENGTH IN CORD BLOOD ASSOCIATED WITH PRENATAL AIR POLLUTION EXPOSURE: BENEFITS OF INTERVENTION. Environment International. 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.01.005

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