Air pollution could harm child brain development, study shows

Jun 28, 2023, 9:40 AM

SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers are revealing air pollution has negative impacts on children’s brains. According to a study released this month, even at levels that the Environmental Protection Agency considers “safe,” air pollution can change how brains function and develop.

At Sugar House Park Tuesday evening, dozens of families showed up to let their children play on the playground and run around in the open, grassy areas.

Kat Gilliam, her husband and three boys met up with friends for a birthday celebration. They laid out blankets and food in the grass and set up corn hole. Her two older boys tossed a football and frisbees around.

She said she tries to get her boys outside as much as she can, but on bad air quality days, she worries how it could impact them.

“Especially with the inversion here in the valley, because if the weather is fluctuating or it gets really bad for a stretch, obviously I think about like asthma or other things that could happen for my kids,” she said.

A new study shows that Gilliam should also consider brain development as a reason to stay inside on bad air quality days.

Published in Environmental International this month, the study found that brain development in children changed when exposed to more air pollutants.

Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California used data from repeated brain scans taken over the course of two years of more than 9,000 children across the nation — including hundreds of children in Utah.

Amanda Bakian, associate professor of psychiatry at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, explained how there hasn’t been much known up until now what changes might be happening in the brain due to environmental exposures like air pollution.

“This study is looking actually at measures in the brain, such as functional connectivity and other parts of the brain, and seeing changes there or impacts there related to exposure to air pollution,” she said.

According to the study, certain pollutants, even at levels considered safe by the EPA, are linked to changes in brain function over time, potentially leading to negative impacts on cognitive and emotional development.

The brain scans are part of the larger, long-term Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which, according to the University of Utah, is the largest long-term study of child and adolescent brain development and health in the United States.

The ABCD study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, plans to follow the thousands of children from about ages 9 and 10, through adolescence and into early adulthood.

Bakian said the ABCD study is looking at the relationship between a number of both environmental exposures and genetic factors when it comes to brain development.

The University of Utah is listed as one of 21 research sites for the ABCD study. Bakian’s colleagues at the Huntsman Mental Institute are involved in the study and perform brain scans on about 1,000 Utah children participating in the study.

Bakian talked about how this study, even if it doesn’t pinpoint exact health outcomes or to what degree the brain changes when exposed to pollution, still shows how important it is to minimize exposure to the outside on bad air pollution days.

“There’s just been growing and more and more evidence that air pollution exposure impacts many areas of health, including brain development and health outcomes related to brain development,” she said.

Gilliam already thinks about the health and development of her boys in many areas, including exposure to TV and screens. Now, she’ll be thinking about exposure to air pollution after hearing about the study.

“It’s a delicate balance as a parent,” she said. “Thinking about your kids, development with them, getting outside, getting active and being healthy and thinking about their developing brain.”

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Air pollution could harm child brain development, study shows