November 5, 2018
In School air pollution by the Pollution Detectives - Here is an excellent article by my friend Francis Koster, Ed.D.
In the area of North Carolina where I live, the four school systems around me score in the bottom half of all the state's school systems on standardized tests. (1) Our state ranks 23rd in the nation (2) in a country that ranks in the bottom half of the world's richest 35 countries. (3)
This is true for half of our nation's schools, including those around you. These schools are not a grand place to send your kids or to improve your local workforce and economy.
This can be fixed using a surprising solution that almost no one thought about: well intentioned citizens trying to improve our community schools by advocating for a long list of "reforms" including home schooling, religious based education, integrated schools, granting existing public schools greater freedom from regulation and creating public and private charter schools.
Their hearts are in the right place, but the range of solutions that they consider is often too narrow. One of the main things that lowers school performance has been shown to be the poor quality air students breathe in class. Fixing air quality has been shown to raise students test scores one and in some cases two letter grades for the entire school. (4) Clean air also reduced payroll costs because teacher absentee rates (requiring paying for substitute teachers) go down.
Only half a dozen states require routine inspection for air and water pollution in schools. There are no federal or North Carolina state regulations requiring that schools be routinely tested for issues with air or water quality.
There are two key contributors to poor air quality in schools, outside air around the school and the air inside the school that is often 2-5 times (occasionally more than 100 times) worse than outside air. (4)
In 2011, scientists studied the success rate of 1.6 million K-12 students in the state of Michigan. They looked at student success rates in 3,660 schools located across the entire state. Some were in areas with clean air and some with dirty air. Because of the common belief that poor grades were often the result of bad parenting and/or poor neighborhoods, they paid particular attention to how wealthy students performed in schools with dirty air and how poor students performed in areas with pure air.
They found that when the air outside the school is polluted, students failed standardized tests twice as often. Said another way, if a school was located in areas of clean air, their pass rate was twice as high. This was true for poor and rich students, rural and urban students, and all the rest. (5)
In El Paso, Texas, students who were exposed to air pollution had lower grade point averages than students of the same social class who attend schools surrounded by cleaner air. (6)
In Israel, a multi year study of 400,000 students taking a qualifying examination for college showed outside air pollution around the school had a significant impact on national standardized test scores. (7)
The air pollution in China is awful and getting worse because of the construction of many coal fired electricity generating plants. In a recent study, international researchers from both the United States and China tested more than 25,000 Chinese citizens using standardized tests of learning. They found that longe term exposure to air pollution caused a significant decline in mental functioning. (8) The study has not been in place long enough to document the total impact of polluted air on children as they age, but even in the study's early stages, it is clear that this pollution is causing significant and long term harm to young children.
China is growing dumber due to outdoor air pollution! - so are parts of the United States. There is a greater impact on students attending older schools near busy highways in urban areas.
On a hopeful note, there is equipment available that can be added to existing older schools to keep dirty air out. Schools that have installed this equipment have reported significant improvements in student performance.
Know any schools that could benefit?
Next week: How can students do better when the indoor air quality is improved?
Francis Koster, Ed. D.
Paul Mohai et al. HEALTH AFFAIRS 2011;30:852-862Paul Mohai et al. HEALTH AFFAIRS 2011;30:852-862
 Clark-Reyna, S., Grineski, S.E., Collins, T.W. (2015). Residential exposure to air toxics is linked to lower grade point averages among school children in El Paso, Texas, USA.
 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, Robert M. Hauser, Center for Demography of Health and Aging, Madison, WI.