Effects of prenatal exposure to coal-burning pollutants on children's development in China

Environ Health Perspect. 2008 May;116(5):674-9. doi: 10.1289/ehp.10471.


Background: Environmental pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), lead, and mercury are released by combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.

Objectives: In the present study we evaluated the association between prenatal exposure to these pollutants and child development measured by the Gesell Developmental Schedules at 2 years of age.

Methods: The study was conducted in Tongliang, Chongqing, China, where a seasonally operated coal-fired power plant was the major source of ambient PAHs and also contributed lead and mercury to the air. In a cohort of nonsmoking women and their newborns enrolled between March 2002 and June 2002, we measured levels of PAH-DNA adducts, lead, and mercury in umbilical cord blood. PAH-DNA adducts (specifically benzo[a]pyrene adducts) provided a biologically relevant measure of PAH exposure. We also obtained developmental quotients (DQs) in motor, adaptive, language, and social areas.

Results: Decrements in one or more DQs were significantly associated with cord blood levels of PAH-DNA adducts and lead, but not mercury. Increased adduct levels were associated with decreased motor area DQ (p = 0.043), language area DQ (p = 0.059), and average DQ (p = 0.047) after adjusting for cord lead level, environmental tobacco smoke, sex, gestational age, and maternal education. In the same model, high cord blood lead level was significantly associated with decreased social area DQ (p = 0.009) and average DQ (p = 0.038).

Conclusion: The findings indicate that exposure to pollutants from the power plant adversely affected the development of children living in Tongliang; these findings have implications for environmental health policy.

Keywords: China; PAH–DNA adducts; coal burning; lead; mercury; neurodevelopment; prenatal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Air Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Child Development / drug effects*
  • Child Development / physiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • China
  • Coal / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Lead / toxicity
  • Male
  • Mercury / toxicity
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / toxicity
  • Power Plants
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology


  • Air Pollutants
  • Coal
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Lead
  • Mercury