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Investigating the association between birth weight and complementary air pollution metrics: a cohort study

Olivier Laurent1, Jun Wu1*, Lianfa Li12, Judith Chung3 and Scott Bartell145

Author Affiliations

1 Program in Public Health, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

2 State Key Lab of Resources and Environmental Information Systems, Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

3 Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

4 Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

5 Department of Statistics, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

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Environmental Health 2013, 12:18  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-12-18

Published: 17 February 2013



Exposure to air pollution is frequently associated with reductions in birth weight but results of available studies vary widely, possibly in part because of differences in air pollution metrics. Further insight is needed to identify the air pollution metrics most strongly and consistently associated with birth weight.


We used a hospital-based obstetric database of more than 70,000 births to study the relationships between air pollution and the risk of low birth weight (LBW, <2,500 g), as well as birth weight as a continuous variable, in term-born infants. Complementary metrics capturing different aspects of air pollution were used (measurements from ambient monitoring stations, predictions from land use regression models and from a Gaussian dispersion model, traffic density, and proximity to roads). Associations between air pollution metrics and birth outcomes were investigated using generalized additive models, adjusting for maternal age, parity, race/ethnicity, insurance status, poverty, gestational age and sex of the infants.


Increased risks of LBW were associated with ambient O3 concentrations as measured by monitoring stations, as well as traffic density and proximity to major roadways. LBW was not significantly associated with other air pollution metrics, except that a decreased risk was associated with ambient NO2 concentrations as measured by monitoring stations. When birth weight was analyzed as a continuous variable, small increases in mean birth weight were associated with most air pollution metrics (<40 g per inter-quartile range in air pollution metrics). No such increase was observed for traffic density or proximity to major roadways, and a significant decrease in mean birth weight was associated with ambient O3 concentrations.


We found contrasting results according to the different air pollution metrics examined. Unmeasured confounders and/or measurement errors might have produced spurious positive associations between birth weight and some air pollution metrics. Despite this, ambient O3 was associated with a decrement in mean birth weight and significant increases in the risk of LBW were associated with traffic density, proximity to roads and ambient O3. This suggests that in our study population, these air pollution metrics are more likely related to increased risks of LBW than the other metrics we studied. Further studies are necessary to assess the consistency of such patterns across populations.

Birth weight; Air pollution; Exposure assessment; Traffic; Ozone