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Can Air Pollution Affect Your Child's Ability to Learn?



Many parents and teachers worry about the effect of air pollution on children in general but research by the University of Manchester in the UK and the two charities - Global Action Plan and The Phillips Foundation - have found that it can affect their ability to learn too.

In fact, cutting air pollution levels by twenty per cent could improve children's "ability to learn" by one month each year.

According to the University's modelling such a cut could improve the development of a child's working memory by six per cent - the equivalent of four weeks extra learning time per year.  This could mean that across a young person's entire time at school it could result in an improvement of more than a year. 

More on this research 

The researchers used some two thousand schools and day care centers (that were close to roads with air pollution above the baseline level of nitrogen dioxide) in their study. 

They concluded those schools and nurseries (with a total of about half a million children who were exposed to sufficient levels of pollution) would have their working memory affected.

Professor Martle van Tongeren of Manchester University added: 

"Pollution of indoor and outdoor air affects the health of our children.  In addition, the available evidence indicates that it affects their cognitive development which may affect educational attainment.  Improving air quality in and around schools will benefit children's health and educational development - and should be a priority for government, local authorities and schools."

Chris Large, Co-Chief Executive at Global Action Plan said:

"We must give all children a fighting chance, especially those in pollution hotspots.

More on air pollution itself and how it affects children

Children face special risks from air pollution because:

(a) Their lungs are growing and...

(b) They are so active and breathe in a great deal of air.

Just like their arms and legs, the largest portion of a child’s lungs will grow long after he or she is born with eighty percent of the lungs tiny air sacs developing after birth. Those sacs, called the alveoli, are where the life-sustaining transfer of oxygen to the blood takes place. The lungs and their alveoli aren’t fully grown until children become adults.

Three things to be aware of are:

(1) The body’s defenses helping to fight off infections are still developing

(2) Children are more prone to respiratory infections than adults, increasing their susceptibility to air pollution

(3) Children often don’t behave like adults, meaning their behavior can affect their vulnerability.

The Southern California Children’s Health study looked at the long-term effects of air pollution on children and teenagers.  When they followed 1,759 children (between the ages of ten and eighteen) from 1993 to 2001, researchers found that those who grew up in more polluted areas face the increased risk of having reduced lung growth meaning that they might never recover to their full capacity.

They found that the average drop in lung function was similar to the impact of growing up in a home with parents who smoked. 

Air pollution can even affect children before they are born

Several studies have found a link between air pollution and the harm it can cause to babies in the womb.  A large study in California found that higher particle pollution levels increased the risk of preterm birth.



Childhood exposure to outdoor air pollution in different microenvironments and cognitive and fine motor function in children from six European cohorts - ScienceDirect

Impact of air pollution exposure during various periods of pregnancy on term birth weight: a large-sample, retrospective population-based cohort study - PubMed (nih.gov)