By Brandon Gertz, MEM ’21

Nicholas School Communications Student Assistant

Durham, N.C. — Junfeng “Jim” Zhang, professor of global and environmental health at Duke University, has received a $2 million grant to lead a four-year study on the effects of early-life and prenatal exposure to air pollution on birth weight and growth. These are two important predictors of childhood obesity.

Jim Zhang
Jim Zhang

Funding comes from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Childhood obesity is known to increase the risk of many chronic diseases later in life. Many factors that influence obesity, such as genetics and lack of exercise, are well documented but scientists are only just now beginning to explore the role that exposure to air pollution – during infancy, in the womb or even before conception – may also play. 

“Despite the fact that 92% of the world population today lives in places where poor air quality exceeds healthy limits, no published studies have tested the possible critical time periods, including before conception, when air pollution may impact birth weight and child growth,” Zhang noted. 

To change that, Zhang and a team of colleagues from Duke, the University of Southern California, Children’s Hospital of Fudan University, and the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science will review weight and growth data and other vital statistics from the medical checkups for 20,000 newborns in Shanghai over the first two years of their lives. 

The team will then use cutting-edge models to chart where and when children have been exposed to air pollution, and they’ll also test whether factors such as family wealth, mothers’ diet during pregnancy, and parents’ smoking habits affect weight outcomes for the children.

“This could provide the first evidence supporting the idea that parental exposure to air pollution during critical time windows, including before conception and during the pregnancy, can be a risk factor for low birth weight and excessive growth in childhood. That information would be critical for promoting strategies to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution,” Zhang said.

Zhang hold faculty appointments at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the Duke Global Health Institute and Duke Kunshan University in China.

His new NIEHS-funded work will build on a large body of previous work examining links between air pollution and human health, including a widely cited study conducted during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, during which the Chinese government undertook massive pollution reduction efforts. That study found that newborns whose mothers’ late-term pregnancies coincided with the Games were born at a healthier weight than those born before or after the Games when air pollution levels were much higher.

“Jim Zhang’s research had added immeasurably to our understanding of the connection between human health and the environment,” said Toddi Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “With this new study, he will continue to keep Duke at the forefront of new frontiers in this critical field.”


Note: Jim Zhang is available for comment at (919) 681-7782 or