JAN 26, 2018 5:57 AM PST

Air pollution can shorten babies' telomeres

Ever heard of telomeres? Reach way back to your high school biology class and remember that telomeres are special parts of DNA that let chromosomes be copied during cell division. I.e., they’re really important. Remember the mention of the eternal spring of youth and lengthening your telomeres? That myth was spread because over time as our cells continue to divide, our telomeres shorten, and that means we’re slowly losing genomic stability. This is a bad thing; in fact, it’s a Very Bad Thing, because shorter telomeres have been linked with cancer and heart disease, cognitive decline, aging, and premature death. Yeah, so, let’s keep those telomeres long.  

But turns out air pollution can cause your telomeres to shorten - and not just yours, but babies’ too. According to new research published in the journal Environment International, a study conducted before and after a coal-burning power plant in Tongliang, China closed in 2004 discovered that babies born before the closure had shorter telomeres than those conceived and born after the plant stopped polluting the air. Duh-duh-duhhh.     

The government decided to close the power plant in May 2004 because it realized that community health was suffering from the coal-produced air pollution. Because the announcement was expected, scientists Deliang Tang and Frederica Perera at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health were able to gather data on ambient polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels, biomarkers, and health outcomes in two different groups of children: the pre- and post-shutdown babies, so to speak. The pre-shutdown babies were exposed to the high levels of air pollution, while the post-shutdown babies were not.

The research team looked at the umbilical cord blood of 255 newborns, about half of whom were born before the plant closure and half-conceived and born after, in order to determine differences in the telomere lengths of the individuals.

"An individual's telomere length at birth is known to influence their risk for disease decades later during adulthood," says Tang. "Further follow-up is needed to assess the role telomere length plays in health outcomes in the context of early life exposure to air pollution."

Babies' telomeres suffer if they are exposed to prenatal air pollution. Photo: Hindustan Times

In pre-shutdown babies, the researchers found higher levels of PAH-DNA cord adducts, the toxic component of air pollution that was emitted from the power plant. They connected higher levels of these adducts in cord blood with shorter telomeres as well as with lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved in neuronal grown. In other words, more toxins equal shorter telomeres and good brain growth. This may not come as a common-sense surprise but the research is significant for the field.                                      

"The new study adds to the evidence that closing this coal-burning power plant was beneficial to the health and future well-being of newborns there," says Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health and professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. "Moreover, we know that lowering exposure to air pollution anywhere will be beneficial to children's health and long-term potential." And, I’d like to add, to adult’s health as well.

Sources: Science Daily, Environment Interantional

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
JUL 27, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Growing Microbes to Feed the World
JUL 27, 2021
Growing Microbes to Feed the World
With the ever-increasing population on earth, feeding the world is requiring more food production than ever before. The ...
JUL 27, 2021
Health & Medicine
Toxic pollution due to climate change is more likely in low income areas
JUL 27, 2021
Toxic pollution due to climate change is more likely in low income areas
Climate change causes toxic air and water pollution, especially in low income countries
AUG 05, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Drop in CO2 Linked to Climate Change 34 Million Years Ago
AUG 05, 2021
Drop in CO2 Linked to Climate Change 34 Million Years Ago
A decline in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 drove the Earth’s climate to change from warm to ice-cold around ...
AUG 10, 2021
Plants & Animals
World Lion Day - Lions Under Threat
AUG 10, 2021
World Lion Day - Lions Under Threat
Lions are large charismatic predators that we love to adore. But human-lion conflicts are on the rise as we continue to ...
SEP 30, 2021
Cannabis Sciences
Illegal Cannabis Grow Sites Could be Poisoning Threatened Animals
SEP 30, 2021
Illegal Cannabis Grow Sites Could be Poisoning Threatened Animals
Cannabis has been legalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in many US states, which is thought to be driving a r ...
OCT 04, 2021
Plants & Animals
U.S. Declares Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Several Other Species Extinct
OCT 04, 2021
U.S. Declares Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Several Other Species Extinct
According to a recent announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, also called the & ...
Loading Comments...