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Breathing Dirty Air During Pregnancy Raises ADHD Risk

Air Pollution

Pregnant women are mindful of what they eat and drink, but they may even need to mind the air they breathe.

New research from Columbia University found that children born to mothers exposed to high levels of PAH, a component of air pollution, had higher odds of exhibiting behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

PAH stands for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. They are toxic air pollutants generated by such common sources as cars, home furnaces and power plants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they've have been linked to birth defects in mice.

Previous studies have shown that exposure to PAH during pregnancy can lead to developmental delays and lowered IQ in younger children.

"The findings are concerning because attention problems are known to impact school performance, social relationships, and occupational performance," said Frederica Perera, DrPh, PhD, the study's lead author and a professor of environmental health sciences, in a statement.

"Unfortunately, exposure to air pollution is not something that the pregnant woman can completely avoid," says Jeanette Carpenter, MD, an assistant professor in the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Division of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center. "There has to be a balance struck between easy measures for limiting air pollution exposure in pregnancy and causing unnecessary fear or alarm."

Carpenter says air quality in the Salt Lake City area is variable, so pregnant women don't need to be concerned all the time. She says pregnant women should be cautious if the Air Quality Index (AQI) climbs to its "orange" alert level.

"They should monitor the AQI and limit outdoor activity at least when the AQI is above 100," she says.