Research, Urban Planning, Environment and Health

The Genetic Background Promotes the Association between Airborne Copper Exposure and Impaired Cognitive Development in Children

An ISGlobal study analyses the air breathed by more than 1,600 schoolchildren in Barcelona


A new study performed by ISGlobal and published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health correlates airborne copper exposure with impaired cognitive development in children. The study, conducted by ISGlobal postdoctoral fellow Silvia Alemany and coordinated by Jordi Sunyer, head of the Child Health Program of ISGlobal, highlights the influence of the child’s genetic background, which may promote this association.   

The air in cities contains copper particles as a result of the erosion of car brakes and of emissions by certain industries. Recent studies already suggested that airborne exposure to this metal negatively affects cognitive function in children, and that the effects may be linked to the efficiency of copper metabolism, which is partly regulated by a protein (an ATPase coded by the ATP7B gene) that pumps copper out of the cell.   

Silvia Alemany, first author of the publication, explains that the aim of the study was in fact “to investigate whether the association between airborne copper exposure and inattentiveness in urban scholar children was modified by genetic variations of the ATP7B gene”.

Within the framework of the BREATHE project, the study repeatedly asssessed the cognitive process of attentiveness in 1,645 children between 7 and 11 years of age from Barcelona during one year, and measured copper exposure levels inside the classroom and in the courtyard.   

The results indicate that children carrying two variants in the ATP7B gene (rs1061472-CC and rs1801243-CC polymorphisms) presented higher inattentiveness scores when exposed to higher levels of indoors copper exposure. These data suggest that individuals with those mutations are more vulnerable to to copper exposure even if the levels are within usual urban concentration ranges.  The authors point out that, even if the increase in inattentiveness may be subtle at the individual level, the impact at the population level may be considerable, especially when the exposure is frequent.   

Jordi Sunyer concludes that the results of the study “emphasize once again the importance of policies aimed at improving the air quality in urban schools and their environment, to guarantee an appropriate cognitive development of children living in cities”. 


Alemany S, Vilor-Tejedor N, Bustamante M, Álvarez-Pedrerol M, Rivas I, Forns J, Querol X, Pujol J, Sunyer J. Interaction between airborne copper exposure and ATP7B polymorphisms on inattentiveness in scholar children. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2016 Oct 22.