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UTHSC’s Tylavsky Co-Authors Research on Connection Between Higher Air Pollution and Lower Child IQ

Dr. Frances A. Tylavsky

New findings from a collaborative study co-authored by Frances A. Tylavsky, DrPH, professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), propose that women who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution during pregnancy are more likely to have children with lower IQ’s. The new paper featured contribution from nine other investigators from universities across the United States and included prospective data from UTHSC’s Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) Study to aid in the research.

Dr. Tylavsky’s report used a geostatistical model that combined ground-based monitoring data and a catalog of algorithms to predict outdoor pollutant exposure during pregnancy at certain home addresses. Distance to nearest major roadway was also used as a proxy for traffic-related pollution. Then, the group tested the evidence of air pollutant neurotoxicity and the influence of prenatal folate on these effects. Folate, also known as Vitamin B-9, is highly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding to fuel rapid growth and prevent neural tube defects in the fetus.

“It is possible higher folate counteracts the metabolic consequences of oxidative stress associated with air pollution,” said Dr. Tylavsky. “Folate itself is protective, as folate plays an important role in healthy neurodevelopment regardless of air pollution exposure.”

Results from the study’s analytic group showed the full-scale IQ of children ages 4 to 6 years old averaged 2.5 points lower than those exposed to lower levels of pollution. In the group with the lowest quantity of folate, IQ decreased nearly seven points per 5-unit increase in particulate matter. The research findings strengthen evidence that air pollution does in fact impair fetal neurodevelopment and suggest a potentially important role of maternal folate in modifying these effects.

“It’s important to note that this is only one study and that our findings need to be replicated,” said Dr. Tylavsky. “However, there is growing evidence of the negative health effects of air pollution.”

In August 2018, the CANDLE Study, whose prospective data supports this work, was awarded more than $35 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health to continue its observational research studies. Dr. Tylavsky is the principal investigator for the CANDLE Study, an initiative for researchers to have the ability to identify drivers and markers of healthy early-childhood development that will lead to improvements in health, development, and well-being through interventions and policy enforcement or development for Memphis and Shelby County families.

The article entitled, “Prenatal Air Pollution and Childhood IQ: Preliminary Evidence of Effect Modification by Folate,” was published in Environmental Research.