Kids who live in neighborhoods with heavy traffic pollution have lower IQs and score worse on other tests of intelligence and memory than children who breathe cleaner air, a new study shows.
The effect of pollution on intelligence was similar to that seen in children whose mothers smoked 10 cigarettes a day while pregnant, or in kids who have been exposed to lead, said Dr. Shakira Franco Suglia of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, the study's lead author.
While the effect of pollution on cardiovascular and respiratory health has been studied extensively, less is known about how breathing dirty air might affect the brain, Suglia and her team write in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
To investigate, she and her colleagues looked at 202 Boston children 8 to 11 years old who were participating in a study of maternal smoking. The researchers related several measures of cognitive function to the children's estimated exposure to black carbon, a component of the particulate matter emitted in automobile and truck exhaust, particularly by diesel vehicles.
The more heavily exposed children were to black carbon, the lower were their scores on several intelligence tests.
When the researchers adjusted for the effects of parents' education, language spoken at home, birth weight, and exposure to tobacco smoke, the association remained.
For example, heavy exposure to black carbon was linked to a 3.4-point drop in IQ, on average. Heavily exposed children also scored lower on tests of vocabulary, memory and learning.
"It's within the range for in utero tobacco exposure and lead exposure," Suglia said in an interview.
She pointed out that exposure to traffic pollution has been associated with a number of other harmful effects and that, short of moving away from heavy traffic areas, there's not much people can do to limit it.
She and her colleagues suggest that traffic pollution may exert harmful effects by causing inflammation and oxidative damage to the brain.
They call for further research on the effects of pollution on the development of intelligence in children and on cognitive decline for people of all ages, including whether traffic exposure might cause or accelerate brain degeneration in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.