Air Pollution May Shorten Telomeres in Newborns – A Sign of Increased Health Risks

Shorter telomere length in cord blood associated with prenatal air pollution exposure: Benefits of intervention

A study conducted before and after the 2004 closure of a coal-burning power plant in Tongliang, China, found children born before the closure had shorter telomeres than those conceived and born after the plant stopped polluting the air.

“An individual’s telomere length at birth is known to influence their risk for disease decades later during adulthood,”

Tang, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School.

2018 Study Highlights

  • Compared telomere length (TL) in babies born before and after a coal plant shutdown.
  • Prenatal exposure coal pollutants (PAH) estimated by cord PAH-DNA adducts.
  • Shorter TL previously associated with certain adverse health outcomes in adults.
  • PAH-DNA adducts in cord blood associated with shorter TL.
  • The second (post- intervention) cohort had significantly longer TL compared to the first.


To examine the molecular benefits of the government action to close the local coal burning power plant in Tongliang County, Chongqing Municipality, we compared biologic markers and health outcomes in two successive birth cohorts enrolled before and after the plant was shut down. In this city, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) were primarily emitted by the coal burning facility. We previously reported that cord blood levels of PAH-DNA adducts (a biomarker of exposure) and various adverse health outcomes were reduced in the second cohort, whereas levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor/BDNF (a protein involved in neuronal growth) were increased. Here we assessed telomere length (TL), which has been associated with risk of certain chronic diseases, early mortality, aging and cognitive decline in adults.

The goals of the present study were to determine whether TL differed between the two cohorts and whether prenatal PAH exposure, estimated by PAH-DNA adducts in cord white blood cells of newborns in China, were predictive of shorter TL in cord blood, suggesting the potential accrual of risk of certain chronic diseases during the prenatal period. We explored relationships of TL with BDNF and neurodevelopmental outcomes, each previously associated with PAH-DNA adducts in these cohorts, as well as the potential mediating role of TL in the associations between adducts and neurodevelopmental outcomes.

We analyzed TL in cord blood of 255 newborns who also had data on PAH-DNA adducts, BDNF, and relevant covariates. Multiple regression analysis was carried out to test associations between adducts and TL and between TL and BDNF, adjusting for relevant covariates. In the subset with developmental quotient (DQ) scores from Gesell testing at age 2 (N = 210), we explored whether TL was a mediator of the relationship between PAH-DNA adducts and DQ scores by first examining the associations between cord adducts and DQ, cord adducts and TL, and TL and DQ, adjusting for the same covariates.

As hypothesized, the mean TL was significantly higher in the second cohort compared to the first cohort. Overall, PAH-DNA cord adducts were significantly and inversely correlated with TL. Multiple regression analysis showed a significant association between adducts and TL, after adjusting for key covariates: β (effect size per standard deviation adducts) = −0.019, p = .003. The regression coefficient of TL on (Ln) BDNF was also significant (β = 0.167, p < .001). Exploratory analysis, regressing TL on Gesell developmental scores, showed generally inverse, but not significant associations. TL was not, therefore, deemed to be a potential mediator of the association between adducts and developmental scores at age two.

This study provides the first evidence that prenatal PAH exposure from coal burning may adversely affect TL, with potential implications for future risk of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease. The improvement in TL in the second cohort and the observed correlation between increased TL and higher levels of BDNF indicate direct benefits to the health and development of children resulting from the government’s closure of the power plant.

“The new study adds to the evidence that closing this coal-burning power plant was beneficial to the health and future wellbeing of newborns there,”
“Moreover, we know that lowering exposure to air pollution anywhere will be beneficial to children’s health and long-term potential.”

Perera, Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health.

Chongqing featured image credit wikipedia.

Have your say! Share your views