Delinquency is in the air

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Schoolchildren, wearing masks, take part in an awareness march on the alarming levels of air pollution in Delhi. A study establishes the link between exposure to toxic air and delinquent behaviour. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Toxic air is already linked to respiratory troubles and increased cardiovascular risks. But two independent studies released in December point out that the damage caused by air pollution could trigger birth defects in newborns and impact adolescent brains too.

While one study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in the State of Ohio in the United States showed that babies born to mothers exposed to air pollution might have greater probability of developing birth defects, the other by scientists from the University of Southern California pointed to the higher risk of delinquency among exposed teenagers.

The Cincinnati study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that expectant mothers exposed to air pollution just before conception or during the first month of pregnancy could face the increased risk of delivering babies with birth defects, such as cleft lip or palate or abnormal hearts. For the study, the researchers used birth certificate data from the Ohio Department of Health and particulate matter data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 57 monitoring stations throughout Ohio. They linked the geographic coordinates of the mother's residence for each birth with the nearest monitoring station and calculated average exposures. They then estimated the association between abnormalities at birth and the mother's exposure to increased levels of fine particulate matter in the air during pregnancy.

The California study found that extremely tiny particulate matter 2.5 (or PM2.5)—30 times smaller than a strand of hair—is particularly harmful for developing brains; it damages the brain’s structure and neural networks and thus influences adolescent behaviours.

The study, which appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, followed 682 children living in a particular locality in Southern California known for foul air for as many as nine years starting when they were nine. With the help of their parents, the researchers noted whether these children had engaged in 13 rule-breaking behaviours, including stealing, arson, vandalism or substance abuse. The findings surprisingly established the link between exposure to toxic air and delinquent behaviour.

T.V. Jayan