Local children perform better on tests after coal-burning power plant closes.

Sep 04, 2008

Perera, F, T Li, Z Zhou, T Yuan, Y Chen, L Qu, V Rauh, Y Zhang and D Tang. 2008. Benefits of reducing pernatal exposure to coal burning pollutants to children's neurodevelopment in China. Environmental Health Perspectives 116:1396–1400.


A new study in China shows that brain development in children improved after a local coal-fired power plant was shut down. The improvements are probably due to lower exposure to contaminants found in the plant emissions.

Chinese children performed better in a neurological development test after a local coal-burning power plant closed down. These findings suggest that removing the source of pollutants can improve brain development and long-term performance in children.

The coal industry provides nearly 70% of China's energy. However, coal power plants are a major source of environmental pollutants, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Exposure to PAHs has been linked to a number of adverse brain effects, and exposure to PAHs during pregnancy is of high concern.

In this collaborative study between U.S. and Chinese scientists, the impact of reduced PAH exposure on children's neurological development was assessed after a local coal-burning power plant closed. Two groups of children were studied. Children in group 1 were born in 2002 and exposed during gestation and early childhood to PAHs from the plant, which closed in 2004. Children in group 2 were born a year after the plant closed and were considered unexposed during development and early life. The authors measured the PAH molecules that were directly linked to DNA (called adducts) in cord blood at birth to determine PAH exposure in the womb.

At two years of age, children from group 1 with high levels of PAH-DNA adducts (reflecting high PAH exposure) were significantly more likely to have poorer performance on a neurological development test, specifically in the area of motor skills development. The significant effect was gone in the second group of children who were born in 2005, although those in the group with higher PAH-DNA adducts still had lower test scores. Impaired neurological development at an early age may lead to subsequent development problems later in life, such as poorer academic performance.