Study: Chronic Air Pollution Slows Cognitive Skill Development

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Children exposed to chronic air pollution are developing cognitive abilities more slowly than children who are breathing cleaner air, say researchers at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), who published the results of their study in the journal PLOS Medicine.

According to Zoë Schlanger of Newsweek, the data came from a survey of over 2,000 children at 39 schools in Barcelona. The children, who ranged from ages 7 to 10, were surveyed every three months for one year. The socioeconomic status of the children was similar among the participants, an important factor because existing evidence shows a correlation between lower socioeconomic status and a greater preponderance of harm from air pollution.

At each visit, the children were tested on cognitive skills such as working memory and attentiveness, both of which are known to grow at a steady pace during this age range. The ability to think of more than one thing at a time and the capacity to learn new concepts, as well as general intelligence, is described as working memory. For children who attended schools in areas with a high amount of pollution, improvement in these areas developed more slowly than those at schools with less air pollution.

Children exposed to high air pollution rates improved their cognitive skills by 7.4%, but those in lower air pollution venues improved their working memory and attentiveness in one year by 11.5%. Children in low air pollution areas were better at tasks like remembering which solutions they have already tried when they are solving a puzzle.

The findings suggest “that the developing brain may be vulnerable to traffic-related air pollution well into middle childhood,” or age 7 through age 10, the authors wrote, “a conclusion that has implications for the design of air pollution regulations and for the location of new schools.”

Cardiovascular disease, asthma, cancer and many other illnesses are related to exposure to air pollution. It also has been found to have a relationship to adverse pregnancy issues including low birth weights, premature births, and autism. In 2012, air pollution was blamed for 7 million premature deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Schools that are located in high traffic areas are particularly prone to having children with slow cognitive development and lower memory test scores, reports CBC’s Christine Birak. In Canada, each year approximately 21,000 premature deaths are related to air pollution. CREAL’s Dr. Jordi Sunyer and his fellow researchers took into account when testing their subjects their parents’ education, commuting time, smoking in the home, and the availability of green spaces at school.

The findings were so compelling that Sunyer communicated with politicians to advocate for awareness of how harmful air pollution is to children’s developing brains. Environmental health Prof. Ryan Allen of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia says that over one-third of public elementary schools in Canadian cities are within 200 metres of a highway or heavily used road.

“The best long-term strategy is to reduce the amount of pollution that is produced in the first place,” Allen said in an email. “We should also take environmental pollution into account when selecting sites for new schools. For example, legislation in California prevents the construction of new schools within 150 metres of a freeway.”

In the UK, Ben Spencer of The Daily Mail writes that next month London’s officials will be asked by London’s Supreme Court to explain why air pollution is so high in 16 UK cities. Members of Parliament have also asked for air filtration devices to be installed in 1,000 British schools which are located near main roads. The UK was told by the European Court of Justice in November that it was in breach of the EU law and should have already created plans to improve the air pollution problems.