There are guidelines aplenty for pregnant women to follow to ensure the optimal health of their baby: eat a balanced diet, don’t smoke, avoid alcoholic drinks, be wary of medications (even pain killers), take prenatal vitamins, and on and on and on. Some women take each and every recommendation to heart, while others make exceptions here and there—allowing themselves to binge on salty chips and rich cookies when they so desire. And it’s certainly okay to do so! But other guidelines need not be taken lightly… as doing so can have dire consequences on a baby’s development and wellbeing.

Alcohol and cigarettes pose severe threats to babies in the womb—as does air pollution. While the former two are widely known as harmful, the latter was recently discovered by researchers in the Netherlands. This study “Air Pollution Exposure During Fetal Life, Brain Morphology, and Cognitive Function in School-Age Children” found a link between air pollution exposure in fetal life and brain abnormalities, which may lead to impaired cognitive functioning later in life.

To reach these findings, researchers studied a population-based cohort, which followed pregnant women and their children from fetal life into adolescence. Dr. Monica Guxens, MD, lead author of the study, led her colleagues in tracking air pollution levels at these 783 children’s homes, using air pollution monitoring campaigns. The data included levels of nitrogen dioxide—an air pollutant caused by traffic and cigarette smoke—as well as coarse particles and fine particles.

The researchers also performed brain imaging on the children when they fell between the ages of 6 and 10—this allowed them to observe brain abnormalities, specifically in the thickness of the precuneus cortex and rostral middle frontal region, which were associated with exposure to fine particles. According to the researchers, these abnormalities contribute to difficulty with inhibitory control, or the ability to regulate self-control—and inhibitory control is related to certain mental health issues like addictive behaviors.

John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry told NeuroscienceNews that these findings shouldn’t be all that surprising: “Air pollution is so obviously bad for lungs, heart, and other organs that most of us have never considered its effects on the developing brain. But perhaps we should have learned from studies of maternal smoking that inhaling toxins may have lasting effects on cognitive development.”

What’s more is that the average residential levels of fine particles tracked by the researchers fell below the acceptable limit set by the EU; a small amount of 0.5% of the pregnant moms were exposed to levels of fine particles considered dangerous. In addition, the average residential levels of nitrogen dioxide—which again is pollution caused by cars and cigarettes—were considered safe. This suggests that even minimal exposure to air pollution or to levels considered “safe” could cause serious brain damage.

Elsevier (2018, March 8). Air Pollution Linked to Brain Alterations and Cognitive Impairment in Children. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 8, 2018 from

Guxens, M. Lubczynska, M. J., Muetzel, R. L., et al. (2018, January 16). Air Pollution Exposure During Fetal Life, Brain Morphology, and Cognitive Function in School-Age Children. Biological Psychiatry. Retrieved on March 13, 2018 from