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Opinion: Air pollution on the brain — what you need to know about your child’s exposure

Air pollution can have a variety of negative consequences for children and adults. If you’re concerned, you can request an air purifier for your school or day care

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Hawthorne Elementary School students walk laps with an air quality monitoring station in the background, Monday, Dec. 12, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Taking advantage of a federal grant, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment have partnered with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services to place air purifiers in every school classroom in the state. But now we have been authorized to expand the program to the state’s 1,800 licensed early education, i.e. pre-K and day care centers. This is one of the most important clean air initiatives ever launched in Utah. Not only will these air purifiers reduce COVID-19 transmission, they will help protect child brain development and educational success.

In the last several years robust medical research has greatly expanded our knowledge of how hazardous air pollution is to public health. We have learned that pollution nanoparticles and the toxic chemicals attached to them can enter the body through multiple routes (not just the lungs), are picked up by the blood stream and distributed systemically. Histopathology studies force upon us this sobering reality — these nanoparticles can penetrate virtually any cell in the body. For most of us, all our critical organs are thoroughly contaminated with these particles, including the brain.  And the contamination is present even in children. 

These pollution particles, called “magnetites” (because they respond to a magnetic field), are composed of iron oxide, platinum, nickel and cobalt and can originate from industrial smoke stacks, vehicle tail pipes or other sources of pollution from high temperature combustion. Autopsy studies found these magnetites were ubiquitous, responsible for 1/100th of the weight of the brain in some patients. Related studies have established that the more air pollution children are exposed to, the more abnormalities they have in brain anatomy.

Numerous clinical studies have direct applicability to the importance of air pollution reduction in schools. Within 30 minutes of inhaling diesel exhaust, at levels comparable to freeway traffic or riding in school buses, brains of healthy volunteers show inflammation and a cortical stress response revealed in EEG tracings. The impact lingers long after exposure ends.  

In similar real-life situations, young students may arrive at school already with a significant learning disadvantage. Traffic related pollution inhaled by school children is associated with impaired memory and cognitive development. The levels of air pollution in the classroom on the day of a test are associated with lower test scores. Children who switch from a school that is upwind from a highway to a school that is downwind of a highway experience a drop in test scores, decline in behavior and an increase in absences. 

Numerous studies have found air pollution exposure in early childhood to be associated with decreased performance on school cognitive tests, greater attention deficits, slower development of memory capability, impaired gross and fine motor skills, and overall worse academic performance. Students with greater exposure to pollution have higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders, including autism.

An NYU study found that compared to similar schools without classroom air purifiers, students in classrooms with air purifiers improved test scores in math and English .1 to .2 standard deviations. These were schools with baseline levels of pollution that were already in compliance with EPA standards. The author concluded that classroom air filters would provide greater education cost/benefit than other interventions such as a 30% reduction in class size, “high dose tutoring,” increasing family income with an earned income tax credit or the Head Start program. He testified before Congress stating “a long line of academic research that has clearly and convincingly linked pollution to student learning.”

Multiple studies have found that air pollution increases rates of multiple types of mental illnesses and psychological disorders, including severe depression and schizophrenia as well as more aggressive, selfish and unethical behavior. Crime rates increase with more air pollution, even at levels below the EPA’s national standards, even to the point of crime rates being higher on the downwind side of interstate freeways. Air pollution increases the risk of hospitalization for psychotic and mood mental illnesses, and is a risk for suicide.

Every Utah child deserves the best possible environment for brain development and academic success, especially after being handicapped by pandemic disruptions. But these air purifiers won’t magically appear, schools have to ask for them. To make sure your school or day care center requests these air purifiers, go to our website, or email brandi@uphe.org.

Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.