In many ways, your growing baby is a lot more susceptible to diseases and conditions that can be caused by everyday items in our environment. Whereas adults have strong immune systems, the developing fetus has not yet grown the systems and cells necessary to fight off disease. For that reason, exposing yourself to otherwise harmless chemicals during your pregnancy could have seriously negative side effects on your baby. We all know that the chemicals and compounds found in cigarette smoke and alcohol can cause serious birth defects and mental development problems, but a recent study found that the compound in automobile exhaust, coal-burning plants, and home heating can have equally harmful effects.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) are airborne, and are especially prevalent in industrial areas such as cities or urban environments. The results of a study showed that kids who were exposed to PAH’s during their fetal development scored lower on tests of intelligence at age five. On average, their IQ was 3.8 points lower than that of kids who were not exposed to PAH’s. If your child was exposed to a lot of automobile exhaust and burning fuels while still in the womb, he or she could have impaired school performance and intelligence. If you live in a rural area or suburb, you don’t have to worry much about airborne PAH exposure. However, if you live in an area with many cars and industrial plants, you should be mindful of your exposure. Of course, you can’t up and move when you become pregnant simply to avoid the exhaust and air pollution, but you should try spending less time in areas with a high number of idling cars. You could also consider wearing a medical mask when taking long trips on foot in the city.

Your child’s intelligence should be important to you. Not only will smarter kids do better in school and eventually in their careers, they are often more compassionate and attentive in relationships. For that reason, you should be conscious of your exposure to PAH’s in your pregnancy. This doesn’t mean you should live in a plastic bubble until your baby arrives, but avoid areas such as car shows or heavy traffic, fuel burning plants, and coal burning heating systems. While every child is different mentally, you should seek comfort knowing that yours is reaching his or her full potential because you were cautious during your pregnancy.

Source: Susan Edwards et al: Prenatal Exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Children’s Intelligence at Five Years of Age. Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 118 Issue 9 pp. 1326-1331 September 2010