Air pollution causes health damage that’s too often overlooked, and the research that’s coming out has been showing this more and more lately.
Schoolchildren across the US are plagued by air pollution that’s linked to multiple brain-related problems, with black, Hispanic and low-income students most likely to be exposed to a fug of harmful toxins at school, scientists and educators have warned.
The warnings come after widespread exposure to toxins was found in new research using EPA and census data to map out the air pollution exposure for nearly 90,000 public schools across the US.
“This could well be impacting an entire generation of our society,” said Dr Sara Grineski, an academic who has authored the first national study, published in the journal Environmental Research, on air pollution and schools.
Grineski and her University of Utah colleague Timothy Collins grouped schools according to their level of exposure to more than a dozen neurotoxins, including lead, mercury and cyanide compounds.
The research found that:
- Only 728 schools achieved the safest possible score.
- Five of the 10 worst polluted school counties have non-white populations of over 20%
- The five worst polluted areas include New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, as well as Jersey City and Camden in New Jersey. One teacher in Camden told the Guardian that heavy industry was “destroying our children”.
Cash-strapped authorities have routinely placed schools on the cheapest available land, which is often beside busy roads, factories or on previously contaminated sites. Teacher unions worry that the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for charter schools, championed by education secretary Betsy DeVos, will diminish federal intervention to reverse this.
The study found that pre-kindergarten children are attending higher risk schools than older students – a stark finding given the vulnerability of developing brains.
Pollution exposure is also drawn along racial lines. While black children make up 16% of all US public school students, more than a quarter of them attend the schools worst affected by air pollution. By contrast, white children comprise 52% of the public school system but only 28% of those attend the highest risk schools. This disparity remains even when the urban-rural divide is accounted for.
Schools with large numbers of students of colour are routinely located near major roads and other sources of pollution, with many also grappling with other hazards such as lead-laced drinking water and toxins buried beneath school buildings
Grineski said there were a range of consequences. “We’re only now realizing how toxins don’t just affect the lungs but influence things like emotional development, autism, ADHD and mental health,” she said. “Socially marginalized populations are getting the worst exposure. When you look at the pattern, it’s so pervasive that you have to call it an injustice and racism.”
The research is “important and is consistent with other localized information we’ve seen over the years,” according to Stephen Lester, science director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Children are facing risks that will affect their ability to learn,” he said. “It’s a serious problem that needs a serious government response.”
As scientists have pieced together evidence showing the link between air toxins and neurological harm, American cities are still largely wedded to a legacy that has juxtaposed certain neighborhoods with heavy traffic and hulking industry.
Only a handful of states require that schools are not placed next to environmental hazards. In 2010, the EPA issued national guidelines on picking school locations but backed away from imposing mandatory buffer zones.
The guidelines were deemed voluntary “after a whole lot of pushback from various financial and political interests,” according to Lester, who was part of a group advising the EPA.
Scientific endeavour is uncovering a jumble of neurological reactions to air pollution, from early onset Alzheimers to schizophrenia. Much of this work is in its infancy, but scientists say there is well established evidence that children are far more susceptible to pollutants than adults, with potentially severe consequences for their development.
“Before, we might have labelled a kid with bad behaviour as just being a bad kid,” said Keith Benson, who taught history in the Camden school system before becoming the head of the local teacher’s union.
“Now we are thinking about it another way. There’s no telling how much potential has been lost because of environmental issues, how many hopes were stunted because these kids were not close to clear air and water.”