Air Pollution Linked to a Higher Risk of Cerebral Palsy

In a large Canadian population-based study, researchers found that exposure to higher levels of a specific type of air pollutant during pregnancy may increase the risk of cerebral palsy in children.

Scientists have found associations between air pollution and infertility, breast cancer, and a higher risk of stroke. Moreover, even pollution levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe may impact a young child's brain function.

Now, according to a study published on July 9 in JAMA Network Open, exposure to air pollution during pregnancy, specifically particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 μm (PM2.5) or less, may also increase the risk of a child developing cerebral palsy.

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Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of physical disability in childhood. It impacts around one in 345 children and causes uncoordinated movements, as well as cognitive, communication, and behavioral issues. While it is an incurable condition, treatments, and interventions can improve symptoms.

To conduct the study, researchers used linked, providence-wide health databases in Ontario, Canada, to gather pregnancy and birth information on 1,587,935 mother-child pairs from 2002 to 2017. All infant participants in the study were born full term.

The team collected average weekly PM2.5, nitrogen oxide, and ozone concentration data from the participants' locations using satellite-based estimates and ground-level monitoring systems.

The team also gathered data on the number of children diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Of the children born during the study period, 3,170 were diagnosed with the condition.

After analyzing the air pollution concentration data, the scientists found that every interquartile range (IQR) increase in PM2.5 at the participants' residence during pregnancy was associated with a 1.12 times higher risk of cerebral palsy.

Moreover, male infants had a slightly higher risk than female babies.

Still, the study found no links between cerebral palsy and exposure to nitrogen oxide and ozone during pregnancy. In addition, the researchers could not pinpoint a specific period during gestation where PM2.5 was most impactful.

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While the results do not prove air pollution causes cerebral palsy, the researchers suggest that PM2.5 exposure during gestation may promote neuroinflammation and impact fetal brain development, which could help explain the links found in the study.

They note that previous research revealed associations between prenatal PM2.5 exposure and other brain-based conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In addition, because of the significant number of participants, the investigators say the results could be similar in locations other than Canada. However, they note that more research is needed to validate their findings and determine whether PM2.5 exposure during a specific point in pregnancy is more likely to increase cerebral palsy risks.

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