Date of Award

January 2024

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Public Health (MPH)


School of Public Health

First Advisor

Zeyan D. Liew


Child and adolescent mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems, contribute significantly to the global health burden. Exposure to toxic air contaminants such as semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs)—especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and phthalates—during critical developmental periods can have detrimental impacts on children’s brain development and function. This study aimed to identify potential associations between children and adolescents’ chemical exposure and mental health outcomes. The objectives were: 1) to characterize the distribution of individual environmental chemical exposures among children and adolescents using Fresh Air samplers and 2) to determine the association between chemical exposures, particularly PAHs and phthalates, and mental health outcomes, including internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, in children and adolescents. The study included 36 children and adolescents aged 8–15 years from New Haven, Connecticut. Participants wore Fresh Air samplers for one week to assess personal airborne chemical exposures. Mental health outcomes were evaluated using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). Statistical analyses—including correlation analysis, descriptive analysis, and linear regression models—were performed to examine the distribution of chemical exposures and their association with mental health outcomes, adjusting for confounders. The study detected 21 chemical compounds, including PAHs, phthalates, and other SVOCs, with varying exposure levels among participants. Potential disparities in chemical exposures were observed across gender, race/ethnicity, and household income levels. Several PAHs, such as acenaphthene, anthracene, and fluorene, were associated with increased internalizing, externalizing, social, thought, and total behavior problems. Additionally, acenaphthylene exposure was negatively associated with externalizing behavior problems. Few associations were observed between phthalate exposures and mental health outcomes. This thesis provides early findings on the potential neurotoxic effects of childhood exposure to airborne chemicals, particularly PAHs, on mental health outcomes in children and adolescents from an ongoing cohort study. The results highlight the need for continuing research and forming strategies to reduce environmental exposures and mitigate disparities in vulnerable populations. Further investigations with larger datasets and longitudinal designs are warranted to verify the observed associations and elucidate the long-term effects of chemical exposures on neurodevelopment.


This thesis is restricted to Yale network users only. It will be made publicly available on 05/07/2025