Longitudinal effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on self-regulatory capacities and social competence

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2016 Jul;57(7):851-60. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12548. Epub 2016 Mar 17.


Background: We evaluated the influence of prenatal exposure to widespread urban air pollutants on the development of self-regulation and social competence in a longitudinal prospective cohort of children born to nonsmoking minority women in New York City.

Methods: Air pollutant exposure was estimated categorically by level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)-DNA adducts in maternal blood collected at delivery, providing a biomarker of maternal exposure to PAH over a 2- to 3-month period. Deficient emotional self-regulation (DESR) was defined as moderate elevations on three specific scales of the child behavior checklist (anxious/depressed, aggressive behavior, and attention problems). We used generalized estimating equations to assess the influence of prenatal exposure to PAH on DESR in children at 3-5, 7, 9, and 11 years of age, adjusted for gender and race/ethnicity. Next, we assessed the association of prenatal exposure to PAH with social competence, as measured by the social responsiveness scale (SRS), the association of impaired self-regulation with social competence, and whether impairment in self-regulation mediated the association of prenatal exposure to PAH with social competence.

Results: We detected a significant interaction (at p = .05) of exposure with time, in which the developmental trajectory of self-regulatory capacity was delayed in the exposed children. Multiple linear regression revealed a positive association between presence of PAH-DNA adducts and problems with social competence (p < .04), level of dysregulation and problems with social competence (p < .0001), and evidence that self-regulation mediates the association of prenatal exposure to PAH with social competence (p < .0007).

Conclusions: These data suggest that prenatal exposure to PAH produces long-lasting effects on self-regulatory capacities across early and middle childhood, and that these deficits point to emerging social problems with real-world consequences for high-risk adolescent behaviors in this minority urban cohort.

Keywords: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; prenatal exposure; self-regulation; social competence.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Child
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / blood*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*
  • Self-Control / psychology*
  • Social Skills*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons