Mount Sinai’s Study: Prenatal Air Pollution Exposure Could Impact Infants’ Heart Stress Response

For years, researchers have highlighted the dangers that air pollution poses to humans. A new study now reveals that exposure of pregnant women may inhibit cardiac response to stress in their babies.



The study, done by Mount Sinai researchers, showed that particulate air pollution during pregnancy has a link to a lowered cardiac response to stress in some six-month-olds. It is the first piece of research to show that in-utero, prenatal air pollution exposure can impact variability of heart rate.

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Medical experts are aware of the importance of heart rate variability to good health. Respiratory, cardiovascular, and digestive systems depend heavily on the heart’s response to stressful conditions in order to function efficiently. Variability in heart rate in response to stress is also crucial for overcoming stress and promoting emotional well-being.

It then means there are bound to be problems when anything inhibits heart variability. Reduced cardiac response to stress in infants raises their risk for health problems. It increases the risk for both physical and mental health issues in later years.

“These findings, in combination with increasing worldwide exposure to particulate air pollution, highlight the importance of examining early-life exposure to air pollution in relation to negative medical, developmental, and psychological outcomes,” said Rosalind Wright, professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine and Public Health, and Medicine at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.

Findings from this research were published in an October issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

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A reduced heart stress response

For the research, scientists at Mount Sinai examined 237 mothers, who were based in Boston, along with their babies.

They measured the degree of particulate air pollution the women were exposed to while pregnant. The team got help from air pollution monitors and satellite data in doing this.

The levels of air pollution these mothers experienced were comparable to what other people in America went through.

Researchers assessed the effects of air pollution exposure on infants’ respiration and heart rate when they were six months old. They found that babies whose mothers were exposed to more particulate air pollution during their pregnancy showed reduced heart rate variability in response to stress.

Identifying exposures

Earlier research showed that the adverse effect of air pollution on heart rate variability could lead to diverse health problems. The disorders it may bring about include allergies, asthma, behavioral disorders, and heart disease.

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However, those studies were carried out in older children and adults. The current one is reportedly the first to examine the possible effects of prenatal air pollution exposure in infants.

Wright, the senior study author and dean for Translational Biomedical Research at the Icahn School of Medicine, stated that identifying exposures in infants is vital. This is essential for picking out children at risk for serious chronic disorders early.

The opinion of Wright was corroborated by study first author Whitney Cowell, Ph.D.

“Identifying exposures that disrupt key processes such as heart rate response will lead to prevention strategies early in life when they can have the greatest impact,” said the postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine.

Cowell noted that, most notably, the findings provide backing for actions to reduce the exposure of pregnant mothers to particulate air pollution.

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