Prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and risk of intrauterine growth restriction

Environ Health Perspect. 2008 May;116(5):658-65. doi: 10.1289/ehp.10958.


Background: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are ubiquitous air pollutants generated by combustion of organic material, including fossil fuel.

Objectives: It has been an open question whether prenatal exposure to air pollution in general and PAHs in particular significantly increases the risk of intrauterine growth restriction, including small size for gestational age (SGA), and preterm delivery. Here, we have examined this hypothesis in a cohort of mothers and newborns in New York City.

Methods: Subjects were young, nonsmoking, healthy African-American (n = 224) and Dominican (n = 392) mother-newborn pairs residing in New York City whose prenatal PAH exposures were estimated by personal air monitoring. Questionnaire and medical record data were obtained.

Results: A 1 natural-log (ln)-unit increase in prenatal PAH exposure was associated with a 2-fold increase in risk of symmetric intrauterine growth restriction (i.e., SGA and fetal growth ratio < 85%) among full-term African Americans (p < 0.05). Preterm delivery risk was 5-fold greater among African Americans per ln-unit increase in prenatal PAH exposure. The same unit increase in exposure significantly increased the ratio of head circumference to birth weight by 0.04% in African Americans. These effects were not observed in Dominicans.

Conclusion: Prenatal PAH exposure is likely to contribute to the occurrence of SGA as well as preterm births among African Americans. The lack of an association in Dominicans might reflect modification of the risk by healthful cultural practices among recent Dominican immigrants. Given that PAHs are globally generated and distributed pollutants, our observations have potential implications for environmental health and energy policies.

Keywords: air pollution; cephalization index; fetal growth ratio; large for gestational age; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; ponderal index; preterm birth; small for gestational age; symmetric intra-uterine growth restriction.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Black or African American
  • Dominican Republic / ethnology
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Female
  • Fetal Growth Retardation / chemically induced*
  • Fetal Growth Retardation / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / pharmacology
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / toxicity*
  • Pregnancy
  • Premature Birth / chemically induced
  • Premature Birth / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons