Air Pollution and Children’s Learning Problems

What’s New in Psychology?

Air Pollution and Children’s Learning Problems

 Jim Windell

            Why do children have problems with self-control? And why are some children susceptible to developing learning problems?

           The fault may not be so much in the stars as what’s in the air that both pregnant mothers and young children breath.

           Prior research conducted at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center found a DNA marker for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) exposure was associated with altered development of self-regulatory capacity and ADHD symptoms. Aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, is a major component of air pollution.

           In a new study, CCCEH researchers looked at the long-terms effects of exposure to PAH.

           The study followed 200 children enrolled in a longitudinal cohort study in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx led by CCCEH researchers. Researchers collected measures of prenatal airborne PAH during the third trimester of pregnancy, a period when the fetus is highly vulnerable to environmental insults. Tests of inhibitory control were administered at or around age 10 and tests of academic achievement, at or around age 13.

           Results of the study were recently published in the journal Environmental Research. Those results show that children exposed to elevated levels of air pollution may be more likely to have poor inhibitory control during late childhood and poor academic skills in early adolescence. The poor academic skills included spelling, reading comprehension, and math skills. Difficulty with inhibition in late childhood was also found to be a precursor to later air pollution-related academic problems.

           Exposure to air pollution during the third trimester on in early childhood may disrupt a child’s ability to learn essential academic skills.

           “Children with poor inhibitory control are less able to override a common response in favor of a more unusual one -- such as the natural response to say 'up' when an arrow is facing up or 'go' when a light is green -- and instead say 'down' or 'stop,’” says first author Amy Margolis, PhD, 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.”

           Any later interventions that are related a student’s learning problems, the researchers point out, should consider that academic problems related to environmental exposures may require intervention focused on inhibitory control problems. This may be more beneficial than focusing on content-related skill deficits. That is, interventions that target inhibitory control might improve outcomes.

           “This study adds to a growing body of literature showing the deleterious health effects of prenatal exposure to air pollution on child health outcomes, including academic achievement,” says co-author Julie Herbstman, PhD, CCCEH director and associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School. “Reducing levels of air pollution may prevent these adverse outcomes and lead to improvements in children's academic achievement.”

           To read the original journal article, find it with this reference:

Amy E. Margolis, Bruce Ramphal, David Pagliaccio, Sarah Banker, Ena Selmanovic, Lauren Thomas, Pam Factor-Litvak, Frederica Perera, Bradley S. Peterson, Andrew Rundle, Julie Herbstman, Jeff Goldsmith, Virginia Rauh. (2021). Prenatal exposure to air pollution is associated with childhood inhibitory control and adolescent academic achievement. Environmental Research; 111570 DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2021.111570


Share this post:

Comments on "Air Pollution and Children’s Learning Problems"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment