Effect of in utero exposure to air pollution on adulthood hospitalizations

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Empirical analyses have demonstrated that individuals exposed to severe air pollution in utero have worse health outcomes during childhood. However, there is little evidence on the long-term health impacts of air pollution exposure. The objective of this paper is to estimate the effect of in utero exposure to the Great London Smog of 1952 (GLS) on five health outcomes identified through a scoping review to be those most likely affected: respiratory, circulatory, neoplasms, mental health, and nervous system conditions. We use the GLS, an extreme air pollution event in December 1952, as a quasi-natural experiment to estimate the effect of exposure to air pollution in utero on adulthood health. Data from the UK Biobank is analysed for a cohort of participants born from December 1952 to July 1956. Differences in health outcomes between adults exposed and not exposed to the GLS due to their birth dates, born inside and outside London, were explored. Our primary focus is hospitalization events between 1997 and 2020 (corresponding to ages 40 to 69), as recorded in linked administrative data from the National Health Service (NHS). Specifically, the five primary outcomes are binary variables indicating that the individual had at least one hospitalization where the main cause of hospitalization is related to respiratory, circulatory, neoplasms, mental health, or nervous system conditions. The analytical sample comprised 36,281 individuals. A positive effect on adulthood hospitalizations due to respiratory conditions was observed. If exposed to the GLS in utero, the probability of at least one respiratory health-related hospitalization between 1997 and 2020 increased by 2.58 percentage points (95% CI 0.08, 4.30, p = 0.03), a 23% increase relative to the sample mean. Small effects were found for all other outcomes, suggesting that these conditions were not affected by the GLS. We do not find heterogeneous effects by sex or childhood socioeconomic status. This study found that a 5-day pollution exposure event while in utero significantly increased respiratory-related hospitalizations at ages 40 to 69 but had no impact on hospitalizations due to circulatory, neoplasms, mental health, and nervous system conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Urban Health
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Event study
  • Great London Smog
  • In utero
  • Respiratory health

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