Air Pollution: How It Affects Student Health and Academic Performance

April 13, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on June 6, 2011 but has been updated and republished.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has rolled back key air pollution rules. The new rules will allow nearly a billion additional metric tons of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere.

While we know that air pollution affects us all, children are particularly vulnerable and suffer disproportionately from the impact of dirty air.

In 2011, a study focused on public schools, the levels of pollution in the areas surrounding them and the effects on students. The findings showed that many schools in Michigan were located in places with high levels of air pollution coming from industrial sources. The study also found that while 44 percent of white students in the state were affected, 82 percent of African American students and 62 percent of Latinx students were affected, results that show that children of color are more at risk of negative effects from air pollution than white students.

Two more recent studies have reaffirmed the findings of this study. Both studies focused on schools in Florida. The first study compared a school downwind of (more exposure) and upwind of (less exposure) a major highway. Students at the downwind school performed worse on state tests, had more behavioral incidents and were absent more often. The second study looked at schools within a mile of toxic chemical release sites. Students who went to close schools were more likely to miss school and perform worse on tests than similar students who went to school farther away.

What’s more, a recent study from Harvard University found that more exposure to air pollution is linked to a higher death rate from COVID-19.

Children have little to no say in where they live, and even less say in where they attend school. Parents often cannot afford to move to a different city or send their children to a different school, so it is up to our leaders in government to address site analysis and make changes to ensure that both schools already in use and schools that will be built in the future will be safe for our children. Pollution causes a number of adverse health effects, including childhood asthma, and this study shows that pollution affects children in Latinx and African American communities more than white communities.

We know it’s not possible to pick up and move your school to a cleaner location; so as a concerned parent, what can you do?

First, while it’s hard for one school to affect outdoor air pollution, you can have an impact on your indoor environment and make sure the air inside your school is as clean as possible. Consider developing a school indoor environmental quality (IEQ) team to address issues. Many free tools are available to help establish IEQ teams, such as the EPA’s Tools for Schools Action Kit. Working with other parents, teachers, students and administrators, we can take action to limit pesticide use, improve school cleaning programs to focus on health, or improve ventilation within the school building.

Second, let’s get proactive on school siting. Work in your community or your state to make sure there are siting guidelines that will limit the exposures that can happen with a highly polluted site. If your school district is going to build a new school, get involved and make sure your community understands the importance of school siting. Let your voice be heard and educate school boards, principals, teachers and anyone else that will listen about siting and the effects that it can have on your children.

Together, we can take action to ensure that our nation’s schools are healthy and safe.