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Higher levels of air pollution can affect children’s academic skills, research shows

Prenatal exposure to high levels of air pollution can impact on the building blocks required for children’s academic skills in later life, a study has found.

American researchers followed 200 children from Northern Manhattan and the Bronx, collecting measures of airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) during the third trimester of pregnancy. They later carried out tests of inhibitory control at age 10 and tests of academic achievement at age 13.

They concluded that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution may be more likely to have poor inhibitory control in late childhood, which in turn is linked to air pollution-related problems with academic skills in adolescence, including spelling, reading comprehension, and maths skills.

First author Dr Amy Margolis, associate professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, explains: “Children with poor inhibitory control are less able to override a common response in favour of a more unusual one – such as the natural response to say ‘up’ when an arrow is facing up or ‘go’ when a light is green – and instead say ‘down’ or ‘stop. By compromising childhood inhibitory control, prenatal exposure to air pollution may alter the foundation upon which later academic skills are built.”

Now researchers have encouraged teachers and parents to consider environmental exposures when assessing students’ learning difficulties and how best to support them.

Dr Margolis said: “When evaluating student’s learning problems and formulating treatment plans, parents and teachers should consider that academic problems related to environmental exposures may require intervention focused on inhibitory control problems, rather than on content-related skill deficits, as is typical in interventions designed to address learning disabilities.”

The new findings follow on from previous research which found a DNA marker for PAH exposure was associated with altered development of self-regulatory capacity and ADHD symptoms.

Co-author Dr Julie Herbstman, CCCEH director and associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School, said: “This study adds to a growing body of literature showing the deleterious health effects of prenatal exposure to air pollution on child health outcomes, including academic achievement.

“Reducing levels of air pollution may prevent these adverse outcomes and lead to improvements in children’s academic achievement.”

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.

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