Reducing air pollution levels by 20 per cent could put children a month ahead in their learning every year, study finds
- Researchers believe inhaling microscopic particles may affect children’s brains
- A reduction of a fifth in nitrogen dioxide pollution could improve memory
- Children in high pollution areas have slower improvements in memory over time
Cutting air pollution outside schools could boost children’s memories, putting them the equivalent of a month ahead in school, experts suggest.
A reduction of a fifth in nitrogen dioxide pollution, produced by traffic fumes and industry among other sources, could improve schoolchildren’s memory by 6.1 per cent, according to researchers at the University of Manchester.
Experts suspect that inhaling microscopic particles of pollution may affect the development of children’s brains.
Researchers did not actually test British schoolchildren’s memories or achievement in school.
But previous Spanish research has shown children at schools in highly polluted areas, similar to those in the UK, see slower than normal memory improvements over time.
Cutting air pollution outside schools could boost children’s memories, putting them the equivalent of a month ahead in school, experts suggest. Stock image
A 20 per cent reduction in pollution could help children’s memories improve up to four weeks faster in a year, based on the Spanish evidence.
The findings will raise concerns about further risks to children from dirty air beyond asthma and respiratory problems.
However some doubt remains on whether pollution really can affect memory, as previous studies have not always found a link.
But Professor Martie van Tongeren, an environmental health expert at the University of Manchester, who led the research, said: ‘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.
‘Policies should be set out by ministers to tackle this urgent challenge, immediately.’
A reduction of a fifth in nitrogen dioxide pollution, produced by traffic fumes and industry among other sources, could improve schoolchildren’s memory by 6.1 per cent, according to researchers at the University of Manchester. Stock image
Last month new analysis, commissioned by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, found more than a quarter of British schools, nurseries and colleges are in areas with ‘dangerously high’ levels of pollution particles called PM2.5, which can trigger asthma attacks in children.
To see how pollution might affect children’s thinking skills, researchers referred to two recent Spanish studies.
These looked at nitrogen dioxide levels in school grounds, and PM2.5 levels inside school, as well as pupils’ memory tests.
Children were shown a series of images, such as numbers, colours or words, and asked to remember one they had seen previously – up to three images ago.
In polluted areas, children were slower and less accurate on average, and this allowed researchers to work out how pollution in British schools could affect pupils.
They could also see the rate at which children’s memories improved over a year, and calculate how many weeks of additional improvement a cut in pollution might provide.
Halving nitrogen dioxide levels in schools could give children the equivalent of up to seven weeks of extra learning in a year, the scientists suggest.
An air purifier in a classroom was found to reduce pollution by 30 per cent in a Manchester primary school.
Experts suspect that inhaling microscopic particles of pollution may affect the development of children’s brains. Stock image
The research was carried out to mark Clean Air Day, and commissioned by its coordinators, the charity Global Action Plan and the Philips Foundation.
Global Action Plan is calling for Government action to reduce pollution at schools and provides advice through its Clean Air for Schools Framework on measures such as improved ventilation and traffic-free streets (SUBS – pls keep).
Responding to the findings, Jonathan Grigg, professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘There is emerging evidence that air pollution has effects on the developing brain and this type of modelling, based on a peer-reviewed study, helps to showing the benefits of reducing air pollution.
‘Reducing children’s exposure will have many other positive outcomes, including less cases of asthma and better lung growth.’
PARTICULATE MATTER CAN AFFECT THE HEART AND LUNGS
PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.
They are created from a variety of sources, including traffic, construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.
Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Some PM, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, is large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye.
Other PM is so small it can only be detected using an electron microscope.
PM2.5 – of diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller – differ from PM10 – 10 micrometers and smaller.
PM1 particles (less than 1 micrometre) come from sources such as combustible fossil fuels, such as oil, diesel and gas, as well as power plants and internal combustion engines.
PM1 can negatively impact brain function, as they can access blood circulation easily after they’ve been breathed into the lungs.
Even smaller are ultrafine particles (less than 100 nanametres in diameter, also referred to as UFP or PM0.1).
These contribute negligibly to the particle mass but significantly to particle number concentrations (PNC).
UFPs are so small in their size that they can penetrate deep into the lungs and move to the other parts of the body.
It is thought UFPs may have a greater potential for adverse health impacts compared with larger particles.
UFPs are not covered by current ambient air quality regulations, according to Professor Prashant Kumar, Founding Director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) at the University of Surrey.
Source: US EPA/GCARE
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