Air pollution can take a toll on kids’ test scores
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Air pollution can take a toll on kids’ test scores

Air pollution may negatively affect children’s standardized test scores, a new study shows.

For the study, researchers used data from the North Carolina Education Research Data Center to track 2.8 million public school students in North Carolina from 2001 to 2018 and measured their exposure to PM2.5, also known as fine particulate matter, found in polluted air.

While previous research has shown an association with adverse outcomes on academic performance in children, it has relied on relatively small or less representative samples and faced challenges in accounting for unobserved confounders.

“The biggest strength of this study is that we [tracked] every student in North Carolina in those years, for the whole time period that they were in the public schools,” says Emma Zang, an assistant professor of sociology, biostatistics, and global affairs at Yale University and coauthor of the study published in JAMA Network Open.

“I think it is really incredible because it’s actually the first study that uses this kind of population data, covering everybody. Air pollution has been shown to affect a lot of things, but the effect of air pollution on students’ academic performance is still relatively new.”

The study also found that PM2.5 levels disproportionately affected test scores of ethnic minorities and girls.

“Females and racial ethnic minorities face structural sexism and structural racism,” says Zang. “There are a lot of policies that are not friendly towards females and ethnic minorities. So, when they’re exposed to the same level of air pollution, they don’t have the resources to buffer the negative influences.”

More privileged populations, Zang says, may have more resources that allow them to live in a better environment, such as in houses with air purifiers.

“I think this is another point which has been found in previous studies, but I’m not sure it is well-known to the general public,” Zang says.

Future research in this area, the researchers say, would involve looking at whether the findings are applicable to other regions, and also the reasons behind the racial and ethnic disparities and social and sexual differences.

“What we want to emphasize here is that despite the relatively low level of ambient PM2.5 pollution in the US compared to other countries, there are still significant adverse health impacts,” says senior author Kai Chen, an assistant professor of epidemiology (environmental health) at the Yale School of Public Health.

“Students living in areas below the current air quality standard of annual PM2.5 concentration (12 micrograms per cubic meter) are still adversely impacted by air pollution when it comes to their test scores,” says Chen, who is also director of research at the Yale Center on Climate Change and Health. “We should aim to strengthen the annual PM2.5 standard to better protect our children.”

Pam Hung Lam of Duke University is the study’s lead author. Additional coauthors are from Penn State and Nanjing University.

The Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale supported the work.

Source: Christina Frank for Yale University


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