“Air pollution is the major environmental contamination in the developed world”

The group directed by Jordi Sunyer is part of the Research Centre for Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) and focuses on three research lines, which are based on general population studies. While two junior scientists analyze the effect of pollutants on the respiratory system and hormonal disruption, the main research of Jordi Sunyer himself focuses on the neurological development of children.

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed 

Sunyer, who is the co-director of CREAL and also the director of the epidemiology and public health programme of the IMIM, seeks to point out environmental factors to which the pregnant woman was or is exposed, that have an effect on children during pregnancy and after birth. The studies start with the collection of biological samples from pregnant women and from their offspring after birth and are continued with follow up studies for several years.

These analyses include the characterization of toxic substances which the mother might have accumulated long before pregnancy, and which she passes on to the child through breastfeeding like in the case of organochloride compounds. Despite of the negative effect of passing on these toxic compounds, the positive effects of breastfeeding is not under discussion, the scientist explains with a calming smile.

Naturally, the mothers’ diet also plays a critical role on the child’s development, as well as environmental pollutants she or the newborn child might encounter in their surroundings. Therefore, in addition to the analysis of biological material, geographical data are being collected. “We model the entire city and, according to the movements of the participants, we know what type of pollution they could have encountered”, Jordi Sunyer states.

Indoor and outdoor pollutants

Indoor pollutants comprise smoking, but also some combustion sources used in the homes. Measurements of NO2, which is a marker of several pollutants, reveal that children from households using gas have a poorer neurodevelopment than those from households where electricity is used. The former children perform worse in neuropsychological tests like the McCarthy test, which employs puzzles, verbal stimuli or computer performance to score attention, inattention or even hyperactivity. Sunyer further advises that in households employing gas as a combustion source, an extraction hood should be used, and that children ought to be banished from the kitchen while cooking, since then the above mentioned effects are no longer observed.

These early life exposures, which start already at conception, show that the described phenotypes cannot be explained exclusively by means of genetics, but that the environment does indeed play an important role. However, the group also does analyse the regulatory mechanisms at the genetic level, in collaboration with the group of Xavier Estivill at the CRG.

The silent pandemic

“Environmental air pollution probably is the major pollutant in the developed world”, says Sunyer. “It is everywhere and you can not avoid it. A group in Harvard even refers to it as the silent pandemic”. According to this group the curve of IQ or neurodevelopmental performance of the whole society is downshifting because of the polluted environment. As a consequence, the number of children with problems in school performance increases and this is also related to an increase in hyperactivity. Therefore, the scientist concludes, “understanding the effect of air pollution on child health is a major goal for our group”.

This article was published in the El·lipse publication of the PRBB.

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