Airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are pollutants generated by combustion of fossil fuel and other organic material. Both prenatal PAH exposure and maternal psychological distress during pregnancy have each been associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children. The goal was to evaluate potential interactions between prenatal exposure to airborne PAHs and maternal psychological distress during pregnancy on subsequent behavioral problems in children.
In a longitudinal birth cohort study, 248 children of nonsmoking white women in the coal-burning region of Krakow, Poland, were followed from in utero until age 9. Prenatal PAH exposure was measured by personal air monitoring during pregnancy, maternal demoralization during pregnancy by the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Instrument–Demoralization, and child behavior by the Child Behavior Checklist.
Significant interactions between maternal demoralization and PAH exposure (high versus low) were identified for symptoms of anxious/depressed, withdrawn/depressed, social problems, aggressive behavior, internalizing problems, and externalizing problems. The effects of demoralization on syndromes of anxious/depressed, withdrawn/depressed, rule-breaking, aggressive behavior, and the composite internalizing and externalizing scores were seen only in conjunction with high PAH exposure. Fewer significant effects with weaker effect sizes were observed in the low-PAH-exposure group.
Maternal demoralization during pregnancy appears to have a greater effect on child neurobehavioral development among children who experienced high prenatal PAH exposure. The results provide the first evidence of an interaction between prenatal exposure to maternal demoralization and air pollution on child neurobehavioral development, indicating the need for a multifaceted approach to the prevention of developmental problems in children.