Kids’ brains can be damaged when schools are near factories, major pollution sources

Each blue dot represents a Toxics Release Inventory site. These facilities emit contaminants that can cause cancer and damage human health and the environment. There are 22,000 such sites in the US. (Source: ToxMap)

A study of Florida public schools, found that children who are exposed to air pollution are more likely to score lower on tests and to be suspended from school. In addition, a school’s overall accountability ranking is more likely to drop.

The findings were recently released in a peer-reviewed paper by researchers Claudia Persico of American University and Joanna Venator of the University of Wisconsin.

At least 200 million people in America — two-thirds of the population — live within three miles of a Toxics Release Inventory site. Of those, 59 million live within one mile. And 22 percent of all public schools are within one mile of a TRI facility, according to 2016 data.

There are roughly 22,000 TRI sites in the US, and many are located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. These facilities emit thousands of types of contaminants, many of them unregulated.

Persico spoke about the research findings Monday night at NC State University. She said during certain times in children’s development — between birth and age 1, as well as in middle childhood, in grades 3 through 7 — the brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of contamination. At these ages, a child’s brain is forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity, that can determine learning ability, well as emotional behavior.

“These are bad times to be exposed to pollution,” Persico said.

However, the culture of high-stakes testing doesn’t account for environmental factors that can affect learning and overall school performance. Lead, mercury and other emissions from power plants and vehicle tailpipes might damage the brain, the paper said. Brain cells can die. Exposure to lead is especially problematic because nerve cells can be “demyelinated,” meaning the protective sheath is peeled away. (Multiple sclerosis is one of several diseases that result from demyelination.)

A separate study from 2017 found that students who take tests on days when there are high concentrations of air pollutants fare more poorly than when the air is cleaner.

Persico said that based on the Florida study, after a new TRI site opens, schools within one mile are more likely to have their school grades drop than comparison schools between one and two miles away within the same zip code. The effect, Persico said, is comparable to a 11 percentage-point increase in the proportion of disadvantaged students in a school. TRI site openings are associated with a higher likelihood of the school falling at least one grade-level, such as from a B to a C.

These findings could compel school districts that are near TRI sites to install and maintain air conditioning and filtration systems to purify  indoor air. The research could also guide local zoning and school siting decisions by keeping polluting industries as far away as possible from schools. “How does local environmental policy affect local education policy?” Persico said.

In many cases, it doesn’t. As Policy Watch reported last week, the Moore County School District is building a new elementary school for grades Pre-K through 5 within a mile of multiple pollution sources. Most of the children currently assigned to the school are economically disadvantaged and Black or Latinx.

 


 

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