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Air pollution exposure linked to poor academic achievement

The body of evidence showing links between prenatal exposure to air pollution and poor academic outcomes in adolescents is growing. 

In a recent longitudinal study from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, maternal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) was monitored during the third trimester of pregnancy. This is a time when a fetus is particularly sensitive to environmental conditions. 

The 200 children subsequently born were tested at age 10 for levels of inhibitory control, and again at age 13 for academic achievement in areas including spelling, reading comprehension, and math. 

Inhibitory control is an important factor when a child learns a new skill or concept. Very often, a new and different rule must supersede an old, familiar rule in order to progress. 

Across all the participants, higher levels of prenatal exposure to PAH were associated with poorer inhibitory skills. This implies that exposure to high levels of PAH renders a child less capable of replacing a familiar response with a new, more unusual one.  

The ability to self-regulate in this way is crucial during the acquisition of academic skills. In this study, poor inhibitory control was associated with worse spelling, worse reading comprehension, and worse math skills. 

Study first author Professor Amy Margolis is an associate professor of Medical Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. 


“By compromising childhood inhibitory control, prenatal exposure to air pollution may alter the foundation upon which later academic skills are built,” said Professor Margolis.


Inhibitory control can thus be seen as a mediator in the relationship between air pollution and poor academic achievement. Those exposed to high levels of air pollution suffer poor inhibitory control and therefore struggle to learn new concepts and skills.

The findings may ultimately lead to the development of interventions to help students to improve their academic outcomes. 

“When evaluating students’ 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,” said Professor Margolis.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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