Shorter telomere length in cord blood associated with prenatal air pollution exposure: Benefits of intervention

Environ Int. 2018 Apr;113:335-340. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.01.005. Epub 2018 Jan 24.


Background: To examine the molecular benefits of the government action to close the local coal burning power plant in Tongliang County, Chongqing Municipality, we compared biologic markers and health outcomes in two successive birth cohorts enrolled before and after the plant was shut down. In this city, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) were primarily emitted by the coal burning facility. We previously reported that cord blood levels of PAH-DNA adducts (a biomarker of exposure) and various adverse health outcomes were reduced in the second cohort, whereas levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor/BDNF (a protein involved in neuronal growth) were increased. Here we assessed telomere length (TL), which has been associated with risk of certain chronic diseases, early mortality, aging and cognitive decline in adults.

Objectives: The goals of the present study were to determine whether TL differed between the two cohorts and whether prenatal PAH exposure, estimated by PAH-DNA adducts in cord white blood cells of newborns in China, were predictive of shorter TL in cord blood, suggesting the potential accrual of risk of certain chronic diseases during the prenatal period. We explored relationships of TL with BDNF and neurodevelopmental outcomes, each previously associated with PAH-DNA adducts in these cohorts, as well as the potential mediating role of TL in the associations between adducts and neurodevelopmental outcomes.

Methods: We analyzed TL in cord blood of 255 newborns who also had data on PAH-DNA adducts, BDNF, and relevant covariates. Multiple regression analysis was carried out to test associations between adducts and TL and between TL and BDNF, adjusting for relevant covariates. In the subset with developmental quotient (DQ) scores from Gesell testing at age 2 (N = 210), we explored whether TL was a mediator of the relationship between PAH-DNA adducts and DQ scores by first examining the associations between cord adducts and DQ, cord adducts and TL, and TL and DQ, adjusting for the same covariates.

Results: As hypothesized, the mean TL was significantly higher in the second cohort compared to the first cohort. Overall, PAH-DNA cord adducts were significantly and inversely correlated with TL. Multiple regression analysis showed a significant association between adducts and TL, after adjusting for key covariates: β (effect size per standard deviation adducts) = -0.019, p = .003. The regression coefficient of TL on (Ln) BDNF was also significant (β = 0.167, p < .001). Exploratory analysis, regressing TL on Gesell developmental scores, showed generally inverse, but not significant associations. TL was not, therefore, deemed to be a potential mediator of the association between adducts and developmental scores at age two.

Conclusion: This study provides the first evidence that prenatal PAH exposure from coal burning may adversely affect TL, with potential implications for future risk of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease. The improvement in TL in the second cohort and the observed correlation between increased TL and higher levels of BDNF indicate direct benefits to the health and development of children resulting from the government's closure of the power plant.

Keywords: Adducts; BDNF; Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH); Telomere.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Air Pollution / adverse effects*
  • China / epidemiology
  • Coal
  • Cohort Studies
  • DNA Adducts / analysis
  • DNA Adducts / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / analysis
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / toxicity*
  • Power Plants
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Telomere / drug effects*
  • Telomere Homeostasis / drug effects*


  • Coal
  • DNA Adducts
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons-DNA adduct