Air Pollution Linked to Attention Problems And Anxiety in Children

BY ON March 26, 2012

Molly RauchLast week, new research was posted online linking a type of air pollution to behavioral problems in children.

The study, from Columbia University’s School of Public Health, followed inner city children exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a type of pollution resulting from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels like diesel, gas, and coal.

Researchers measured exposure to this air pollutant while the children were still in their mother’s wombs, using two strategies: personal air monitors worn by the pregnant moms-to-be, as well as the presence of biological markers in umbilical cord blood measured after the babies were born.

Seven years later, the researchers evaluated the behavior of the 253 children using a detailed assessment filled out by the mothers. They found that exposure to PAH was correlated with attention problems and anxiety.

All of the babies in this trafficked, urban environment were exposed to PAHs. But those children who had higher measured levels of exposure were more likely to exhibit attention problems and anxiety, even after accounting for other sources of PAH pollution, such as cigarette smoke.

This new research indicates that general levels of air pollution, the kind of pollution regularly encountered in urban environments in the major population centers of our country, were correlated with children’s behavior, emotional well-being, and ability to learn – years later.

As a mom, I hear new theories practically daily to explain why kids act the way they act. It seems that parents are eager for the elusive theory of everything – the one input that can explain every output. Whether it’s sugar, screen time, or socioeconomic status, we are searching to find the key that will allow us to prevent learning disabilities, bullying, early puberty, tummy aches, and disinterest in school, all in one shot. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

This new research on PAH exposure reminds me that our parenting puzzles are complex. Our children’s ability to learn, and their emotional well-being, may be determined by sometimes counter-intuitive factors.

Air pollution and anxiety? It’s unexpected – and it’s preventable.

Here are things that will help reduce PAH exposure: clean up our car fleet, clean up our truck fleet, smoke less cigarettes, burn less wood, burn less coal.

We need scientists willing to think outside the boundaries of our well-worn this-explains-everything culprit, whether it’s poor school systems, artificial food coloring, birth order, economic injustice, vaccines, parental disharmony, too little time outside, processed foods, or fill-in-the-blank.

And although there’s no one explanation for our children’s problems, when we do find links, such as those between air pollution and behavior problems, we need a committed army of moms determined to make our children’s health a national priority. Please join Moms Clean Air Force and let’s get started.

Full disclosure: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health is my alma mater.


TOPICS: African-American Community, Latino Community, Pollution, Pregnancy, Social Justice

  • I have an old article by Molly Rauch called Lunchbox Makeover that I would like to post on my website. However, the website on the article (www.thegreen comes up as a National Geog. site.
    Please let m know whether I should use instead, since I found Molly on this site.
    Thanx, ellensue jacobson

  • Hi Ellen, please feel free to link to Molly’s MCAF author page: Thanks for your reading and supporting clean air!

  • bevis longstreth

    It would be instructive to carry this research forward by testing in well chosen cities around the world with dramatically different air qualities: e.g. Mexico City and Stockholm. Perhaps this has already been done. To get citizens of the world’s large cities to care more about their own environments, it might be useful to have an independent body (like Mom’s Clean Air Force) rank those cities by air quality and publish annually how the rankings change (and why), just as colleges and universities receive annual rankings; just as countries receive literacy rankings (e.g. US ranks 20th and Russia ranks 15th, a fact that, if widely known (but, alas, isn’t),ought to motivate US citizens to care more about education and adjust their fantasies about how exceptional we are).

  • Molly Rauch

    Thanks for your ideas, Bevis.

    The American Lung Association ranks US cities for air quality. You can see the most polluted cities here (They also rank cleanest cities.) It is interesting to watch how those rankings change each year and to notice what are the contributing factors.

    To find out more about air pollution in cities around the world, I recommend the World Health Organization’s database on outdoor air pollution:

  • Gloria Monroe

    I always felt there was an environmental connection to the rise in ADHD, which doctors prefer placating these kids with meds over discovering the
    ” root cause” of the disorder…makes sense.

  • yvonne piburn

    This is a no brainer.
    People OVER profit!!!!!!!
    The children are the future. You are giving up the future health of our children and our country for short term profits by those that suffer the pathology of greed. Rise above and protect the children.

  • Molly, thanks for the visibility on this important issue.

    PEW Charitable Trusts is a most remarkable organization with common alignment to Moms Clean Air Force cause. They publish the truth in their research, without regard to big money interests…truly impressive! Searching on “air pollution” within their research papers will provide a steady flow of useful material worth reporting. They could also be a major donor for this group, if they already aren’t.

    The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

  • All of us need clean air for the sake of our health and well-being!

  • Reading in a United Nations report that 80% of all chronic diseases are due to diet, lifestyle and environment was one of the factors that prompted me to collate the available research on children’s health and the environment and put it in an easy to read accessible book ‘eco parenting – growing greener children’. As Professor Marc Cohen, RMIT University, Melbourne, comments ‘The future of the human species is dependent on how we take care of our young. If we are to survive eco parenting is not an option it is a necessity. Eco parenting practices as outlined in the eco parenting book can help save the environment and curtail the current epidemic of lifestyle related chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, ADHD, Asthma etc. while also ensuring that children and their parents live long, joyous and fulfilling lives.’

    Thanks for your wonderful work.

    Professor Marc Cohen
    MBBS(Hons), PhD(Elec Eng), PhD (TCM), BMedSc(Hons), FAMAC, FICAE
    Professor of Complementary Medicine
    School of Health Sciences
    RMIT University

  • Skip

    It makes perfect sense that general health and well-being can be directly (and indirectly) contributed to pollutants, on the surface or in water and air. That perfect sense applies to children and adults.

    This particular study, however, does not interest me at all. Here’s why.

    1. The mothers were given a detailed assessment about their children seven years after they agreed to the basis of this study. Of course they said their children were suffering from anxiety and attention problems. What 6 or 7 year old isn’t? The fact that the mothers completed the assessments, not medical practitioners, makes the results of those assessments biased at best.

    2. I understand that for many years children who truly had psychological problems were thought to be “trouble” and that was wrong. In recent years however, we’ve gone to the other extreme – no child is “trouble” and therefore they must have some type of psychological problem or learning disability. That is wrong too. This study is once again striving to prove that no child is “trouble” and that’s just not the case.

    3. This study focuses entirely on urban children. What about children living in a small midwestern town with a population of 200 alongside train tracks that has 10 diesel trains passing by every day, a machine factory, and a popular truck stop? Would those children, who are probably directly exposed to higher concentrations of PAH than urban children, be better or worse for anxiety and attention problems? Would the mothers say that?

    I agree that cleaner air is important to general health and well-being. That being said, I also disagree that cleaner air is going to change reports of anxiety and attention problems with children. What will stop that is when doctors finally say to the parents who need to know, “sorry, but there’s nothing psychologically wrong with your kid. He’s just trouble and you need to put a stop to his actions.” Not all children fall into that category, I know, but many do and I know that too.

  • Very glad to see that MCAF is equally concerned with pollution from burning natural gas as other fossil fuels. Fracking, the new method of extracting gas, creates climate change and air pollution from leaks and “flaring,” (burning off gas directly into the atmosphere, normally done 24/7 for about a week at every wellhead). A recent 3-year study in Colorado found traces of benzene, toluene and xylene in air samples around drill sites ( This air pollution is more than a local problem; it can travel in a radius of up to 200 miles (, which means it can reach New York City, a place already known for high asthma rates, from drill sites in Pennsylvania.

    Incentives and current low prices may lead many urban buildings to switch boilers from burning oil to burning gas, but this will worsen, rather than improve our air quality. Much of the soot and air pollution in cities has been caused by poor boiler maintenance, rather than by the fuel itself. Those buildings are easy to spot, spewing clouds of black smoke into the sky. When a poorly-maintained gas boiler malfunctions, it spews invisible carbon monoxide, and the problem is unlikely to be noticed.

    In addition, with the increase of fracked shale gas entering the supply stream, the gas itself is likely to contain unsafe levels of radon, which, when inhaled, leads to lung cancer. This means that residents could inhale radon simply by cooking at a gas stove, or by doing laundry with a gas dryer, or, for the unlucky building staff, by maintaining a gas boiler. So cities mandating boiler conversions may swap an asthma problem for a lung cancer problem. This is all so unnecessary, when we could be moving towards greener solutions, such as biodiesel, solar and wind.

  • Courtney

    We need clean air or we will die alot faster then neccessary

  • Nancy Fanara-Berrian

    For the powers that be, the preferred interpretation is regretably, profit over people and Yvonne you are right. It should be the other way. It is not. The world governments are actually trying to kill us very intentionally through the assault created on us and our children in our environment and a desensitized stressed out culture at least in the west. There are those of the one percent who are doing this to depopulate the planet, preserve more wealth for the few and the pseudo-feudal system we find ourselves in is enslavement for the many, engineered by the one percent. They refer to us as “wasteful eaters”. Apparently if you visit websites like the technologies exist for free power, cures for cancer and more. Check out Natural News also as there is lots of info there as well about how the US government has taken away more of our rights, to better control us. Technologies like cures for cancer are being suppressed because those things aren’t going to profit fossil fuel, big pharma, etc., i.e the one percent. I continue to sign petitions because it is the right thing to do. But we should not beat ourselves up. We are being lied to. Technologies that would heal these situations are intentionally suppressed. Lives have been threatened and lost. The government instead of taking the leadership role necessary for sustainability to succeed is very much threatened by the notion, since the big campaigns are financed by fossil fuel companies, big pharma and other special interests. Tesla technologies included free forms of electricity and he was killed for that. So it is really a matter of demanding the truth. It is not a matter of burning less coal or wood or better performing cars because though these are noble and well intended ideas this and more already exists and we are being lied to. I submit this link for your consideration:
    We need to intend healing, peace and an end to the lies. We also need to be prepared to forgive so we can move forward and create the world our children deserve. Love and light…

  • Nancy Fanara-Berrian

    Here’s another good link:

    This is sponsored through “The Shift Network”. There are all kinds of free phone conference presentations on all kinds of topics by the experts that fall within the umbrella of sustainability, eco parenting etc. This is very empowering. Blessings…

  • Andy Taylor-Blenis

    We need people to look at quality of life issues. Pollution makes our quality of life go down. It effects our ability to move with lung issues, our abiltiy to learn with focus issues and our ability to enjoy our lives with worries.

    This is not a class thing and yet the corperations are inflicting it on all of us for profit. Why do they think they are immune? Blinded by greed also effects quality of life.