Air Pollution Affects Elementary Students’ Test Scores

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Chronic exposure to air pollution particles can indirectly affect students’ performance. In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in September, the researchers examined the test scores of third graders living in a city that is often exposed to fine particle pollution.

High Exposure to Short-Term Particle Pollution

In April 2020, the American Lung Association published top-ten lists of US cities that are exposed to air pollution. The cities in the Western region are affected by unhealthy spikes.

The list includes Salt Lake City in the category for short-term particle pollution where PM2.5 is at peak for 24 hours.  PM2.5 are fine particles that are dangerous pollutants because they can get into the lungs. Students who live in the largest state in Utah are at risk.

Students with Social Disadvantage are at More Risk

The researchers studied the English Language Arts and Math test scores of Salt Lake County third graders from school year 2016-2017. The students across 156 primary public schools showed low Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) results in these subject areas.

To check if only air pollution affects test scores, variables for social disadvantage were created. These cover the school status, school neighborhood context, school population in terms of minorities, and student population on free or discounted meals.

Grineski remarked, “These factors influence standardized test scores” and that “students from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds often have unequal educational experiences in the U.S”. 

The air pollution problem in Salt Lake County suggests that students of color and those who are in the poverty line are at an increased risk. This is in contrast to schools that have a large population of white students. Such schools cater to students from the middle and upper classes.

The Need to Lower Figures for Safe Levels

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may need to reduce the figures for the safe levels of PM2.5. The studies in Salt Lake County still show below-average levels that are still considered by legislators to be “safe”.

The current standard of the US EPA for PM2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. The findings show that in the schools studied, there are only 23 micrograms per cubic meter as the highest average of exposure to PM2.5 concentration.

This is based on the number of days the schools were exposed to high concentrations. Yet this number still affected academic performance.

Enforcement of Policies that Address Air Pollution

Lead author Casey Mullen, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Utah, stated that the major takeaway from the study isn’t only about the school location. The findings show that “everyone is impacted by peak pollution”.

University of Utah’s Professor Sara Grineski of the Sociology department says that multiple studies show that air pollution has detrimental effects on the cognitive processes of the brain. She added that Utah has taken efforts to reduce air pollution. However, everyone needs to be consistent in implementing policies against air pollution.

The results of the study can pave the way for more research on establishing the impact of fine particulate matter on academic performance.

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  1. download December 23, 2020

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