The closing of a coal power plant in China provided an ideal opportunity to study the effects of air pollution and childhood health. Women who became pregnant after the plant closed had healthier babies than women of the same community who were pregnant while the plant was in full operation.
More than 70% of the electricity in China comes from coal-fired power plants but coal plants are not unique to China. The study was localized to just the area around Tongliang, a city in the southwestern region of China, home to more than 600,000 people. Similar studies may find similar outcomes in areas surrounding other coal-fired facilities around the world.
The research team was led by Dr. Deliang Tang of the Columbia University Center for Children's Environmental Health, a part of the Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. The research compared two elements to measure childhood health in the area surrounding the coal plant, which closed in 2004.
The first element, the pollutant, is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are a form of air pollution commonly emitted wherever coal is burned. While the Tongliang coal plant was in operation, the level of PAH in the air blanketing the communities surrounding the plant was high. The level of atmospheric PAH declined significantly once the air cleared after the plant's closure.
The second element under examination was brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is crucial for healthy brain development in areas that govern cognition. When a child is exposed to PAH, even in utero, an adduct (joining together) of PAH and DNA is formed. The research team analyzed blood from the umbilical cords of newborns to measure their levels of PAH-DNA and BDNF.
The Gesell Developmental Schedule (GDS) was adapted for use in China in order to measure any developmental delays that might affect the children as they matured. The GDS is a standardized test that assesses a child's development in language, learned behaviors, motor skills, and social adaptation.
The study's findings confirmed some of the researchers' hypotheses:
- As PAH levels declined after the plant's closure, the level of BDNF increased.
- The children scored higher in developmental skills after the plant closed.
- The level of PAH-DNA adducts in cord blood was reduced significantly after plant closure.
- The average score of motor skills and social adaptation were higher in the post-closure children than those born before the plant closed.
Tang says his team's findings "indicate that regulation can rapidly decrease exposure and improve health outcomes among the most sensitive populations." He considers policy changes based on scientific evidence such as his to be the key to minimizing the health impact of environmental toxins.
Source: Tang, Deliang, et al. "Molecular and Neurodevelopmental Benefits to Children of Closure of a Coal Burning Power Plant in China." PLOS / One. PLOS. Mar 19, 2014. Web. Apr 6, 2014.