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August 2018

Childhood fish oil supplementation modifies associations between traffic
related air pollution and allergic sensitisation

Anna L. Hansell, Ioannis Bakolis, Christine T. Cowie, Elena G. Belousova, Kitty Ng, Christina Weber-Chrysochoou, Warwick J. Britton, Stephen R. Leeder, Euan R. Tovey, Karen L. Webb, Brett G. Toelle and Guy B. Marks


Media release

A popular food supplement linked to heart health may help protect your child from developing allergies, Australian research has revealed.

A study by the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, in collaboration with researchers from Imperial College London, found that amongst children who lived in higher traffic areas, those who took fish oil supplements in their first five years of life were less likely to develop allergies to common house dust mites. This is despite living in traffic-dense areas known to drive up allergy rates in young people.

“Our work is the first to suggest that taking fish oil supplements in childhood may have a protective effect against allergies for kids living in heavy traffic pollution areas where allergy rates can be higher,” explains Dr Christine Cowie, co-author of the study published in the journal Environmental Health. “While our work is preliminary, it’s very exciting to find a potential aid for parents keen to shield their children from developing common household allergies.”

House dust mites are microscopic parasites that are one of the most common triggers of allergic conditions globally, and particularly so in Australia. Many people with asthma, atopic eczema and allergic rhinitis are allergic, and this eight-legged arthropod is one of the worst offenders. Mites feed off dead skin cells from humans, and make their home in bedding, mattresses, carpets and upholstered furniture.

A recent study by the same team found that children exposed to higher traffic within 50 metres of their home were at greater risk of having house dust mite allergy. So the group, led by Professor Anna Hansell from Imperial College, London, set out to investigate whether fish oil, a commonly-used supplement, could help minimise the effects of traffic pollution on the risk of being allergic.

The team examined data collected from a long-running longitudinal study on asthma in children. This analysis looked at the childrens’ data at eight years of age, along with data on traffic density as a measure of exposure to traffic-related air pollution, and allergic responses, lung function, and reported asthma and rhinitis. Half of the children in the study had been randomly allocated to take regular fish oil (omega-3) supplements throughout the first five years of life.

“We found that, among children exposed to high traffic at home, those that hadn’t been allocated the fish oil supplements had a greater risk of being allergic to house dust mites at eight years of age than children who had been given them,” Dr Cowie explains. “Put simply, taking fish oil supplements early in life may protect you from developing house dust mite allergy, if you live in an area with higher traffic.”

The study is one of the first to examine the interactive effects of air pollution with fish oil supplementation. The results are important because they suggest simple protective measures that may protect against the effects of pollution. “It would be a wonderful discovery if parents could protect their children from this common allergy simply by taking a food supplement,” Dr Cowie says.

While the results are promising, the researcher cautioned against immediate action. “It’s certainly exciting but our findings need to be replicated in larger studies before we can advise parents to race out to the pharmacy,” she says

CAR members involved in this study

  • Anna Hansell

  • Guy Marks

  • Christine Cowie

Media and other coverage of this study 

  • Channel 7 news,  Dust mites, 26 August 2018 

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