Fetal exposure to environmental toxicants may program the development of children and have long-lasting health impacts. The study tested the hypothesis that depressed height gain in childhood is associated with prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heavy metals (lead and mercury).
The study sample comprised 379 children born to non-smoking mothers among whom a total of 2011 height measurements were carried out over the 9-year follow-up period. Prenatal airborne PAH exposure was assessed by personal air monitoring of the mother in the second trimester of pregnancy and heavy metals were measured in cord blood. At the age of 3 residential air monitoring was done to evaluate the level of airborne PAH, and at the age 5 the levels of heavy metals were measured in capillary blood.
The effect estimates of prenatal PAH exposure on height growth over the follow-up were adjusted in the General Estimated Equation (GEE) models for a wide set of relevant covariates. Prenatal exposure to airborne PAH showed a significant negative association with height growth, which was significantly decreased by 1.1 cm at PAH level above 34.7 ng/m3 (coeff.=−1.07, p=0.040). While prenatal lead exposure was not significantly associated with height restriction, the effect of mercury was inversely related to cord blood mercury concentration above 1.2 μg/L (coeff.=−1.21, p=0.020),
The observed negative impact of prenatal PAH exposure on height gain in childhood was mainly mediated by shorter birth length related to maternal PAH exposure during pregnancy. The height gain deficit associated with prenatal mercury exposure was not seen at birth, but the height growth was significantly slower at later age.