First-ever link found between prenatal exposure to ultrafine particles, pediatric asthma

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Researchers said they found evidence that children exposed to ultrafine particles from air pollution in utero are more likely to develop asthma than unexposed children.

It is the first study in the United States to identify the association, said Rosalind J.. Wright, MD, MPH, dean of translational biomedical research at Mount Sinai Health System, and colleagues.

Since ultrafine participles (UFPs) have “enhanced oxidative capacity” and the “ability to translocate systematically,” they may be more toxic than other pollutants, Wright and colleagues wrote in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. UFPs are those of 100 nm or less, the researchers said.

“Childhood asthma remains a global epidemic that is likely to increase with the expected increase in exposure to particulate air pollution from the effects of climate change,” Wright said in a press release.

The researchers noted that ultrafine particles are not regulated, which hampers estimating long-term exposures. They added that “studies linking UFPs to childhood health focus on short-term exposure due to a lack of adequate spatiotemporal models.”

Wright and colleagues estimated the association between the daily mean prenatal exposure to UFP and the incidence of asthma in 376 children (192 of whom were girls) whose mothers lived in the Boston area. The researchers used Bayesian distributed lag interaction models (BDLIMs) to identify sensitive windows for exposure to UFPs and determine whether effect estimates differed by gender. All mothers were at least 37 weeks pregnant and nearly 82% were black or Hispanic. The UFPs mainly came from local traffic; however, on windy days, UFPs from a nearby airport were recorded.

Wright and colleagues found that the median prenatal exposure to UFP was 27,842 counts / cm2 (interquartile range = 24,033 counts / cm2 to 32,302 counts / cm2). In addition, 18.4% of the children developed asthma by the age of 30 months. The cumulative OR for developing childhood asthma was 4.28 (95% CI, 1.41-15.7), “per doubling the UFP exposure level during pregnancy”, with similar effects in boys and girls, wrote the researchers.

Overall, there was a significant association between increased exposure to UFP during a 28 to 35 week pregnancy and an increased risk of childhood asthma, Wright and colleagues said. BDLIMs showed that girls were most at risk of developing asthma when exposed to higher UFPs in late pregnancy, while for boys, “all exposure windows were considered equally important with an increased risk throughout pregnancy”. All risks persisted even after the data was adjusted for fine particles and nitric oxide, the researchers reported.

“This research is an important early step in building the scientific basis that could lead to better monitoring of ultrafine particulate matter exposure in the United States and ultimately regulation,” Wright said in a release. “As we develop methods to measure these tiny particles, we hope to replicate these findings within different geographic areas in the United States and globally.”

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