Your Car’s Exhaust Could Be Hurting Children’s Ability to Learn

A new study finds that skills lag among schoolchildren exposed to higher levels of vehicle emissions.

(Photo: Gary John Norman/Getty Images)

Mar 4, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Air pollution from automobiles has been linked to higher rates of autism, as well as increased risk of respiratory and heart disease. Now a research team from Spain has connected vehicle emissions to impaired learning skills in elementary school students.

In a study published this week in the journal PLOS Medicine, researchers wanted to figure out if high levels of traffic-related air pollution affect children’s cognitive abilities. They posed the question because there is evidence that children exposed to this kind of air pollution in utero or during infancy have higher chances of developmental and neurological problems.

Over 12 months, the research team periodically assessed memory skills and attentiveness among almost 3,000 children ages seven to 10 who attended 39 schools in Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city.

They also recorded the levels of three components of vehicle-related air pollution at each location: elemental carbon, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates, which are extremely small bits of burned hydrocarbons created by burning oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel.

The results are disturbing: Children at schools with high levels of the three pollutants lagged in all three areas of cognitive development compared with their peers at schools with low levels.

For example, schoolchildren in highly polluted schools had a 7.4 percent increase in “working memory”—holding multiple items of information in the mind at once—while those at low-pollution schools had an 11.5 percent increase.

To try to account for other factors that affect learning, such as poverty, the research team compared high- and low-pollution schools that had pupils of similar socioeconomic status.

These findings might seem to suggest that tailpipe emissions directly hurt the brains of children, but that is not exactly what they mean. More research would be needed to make that argument.

What they suggest, as the researchers were careful to note, is “that the developing brain may be vulnerable to traffic-related air pollution well into middle childhood,” not just before birth or during the infant years.

Still, the findings have serious implications for changing how sites are chosen for schools, pollution regulations, and perhaps even how quickly and comprehensively we ought to switch from fossil fuel–guzzling vehicles to electric cars and trucks.