Brian Moench: Cleaner air is the quickest way to smarter children

It’s almost time for the annual wild rumpus on Capitol Hill, otherwise known as the Utah legislative session. Count on public education being given profuse lip service. Battle lines will inevitably be drawn between tight-fisted conservatives who agonize over spending money and more moderate conservatives who agonize over education mediocrity and overcrowded classrooms. Liberals might be part of the conversation, if indeed there were any on the Hill.

What if we could make everyone happy with an inexpensive way to raise test scores, educational achievements, intellectual abilities and the career potential of every Utah student, from pre-K to graduate school? I’m glad you asked because, lo and behold, there is, and for pennies on the dollar compared to the usual interventions and expenditures.

Research is growing exponentially on how potent air pollution acts as a neurotoxin. Air pollution contaminates the brain — literally, causing damage both anatomically and functionally throughout the entire life span, from the fetal stage of intra-uterine development, to a toddler afflicted with autism, an adolescent struggling with algebra, or the elderly handicapped by Alzheimer’s.

Air pollution breathed by a mother during pregnancy decreases the volume of a baby’s brain white matter and, correspondingly, test scores, measured years later in the fourth grade. Students attending a school downwind of a major highway show lower test scores, higher school absenteeism and more behavioral problems.

Within 30 minutes of breathing levels of diesel exhaust consistent with what children may breathe in an old bus on the way to school, EEG tests show abnormal brain wave activity of inflammation and general cortical stress, which reduces learning capability. Other studies show directly that air pollution inhaled in the morning, on the way to school, can affect a child’s ability to learn that same day in the classroom.

Outdoor levels of PM2.5 particulate pollution on the day of a test, affect students’ test scores. Pollution impaired scores even end up curtailing ultimate education attainment and career earnings.

Chess players make more mistakes when inhaling higher levels of particulate pollution and professional baseball umpires make more incorrect calls. Indoor factory workers suffer decreased productivity and performance with higher levels of outdoor pollution, including levels considered “safe” by the EPA’s standards. Even stock traders perform worse during higher air pollution in New York City and other trading centers.

But all this research also has a bright side. Brain function improves when pollution is reduced, in particular in school children. Children who live near sources of industrial pollution improve their test scores, and reduce school absenteeism and suspensions when those smokestacks are shuttered.

In soon-to-be published research from New York University, researchers found that scrubbing already “clean air,” by placing an inexpensive ($700), high performance room air purifier in each classroom, capable of reducing particulate pollution 90%, improved math and english test scores about 0.2 standard deviations, or about 5%. Think of an air purifier as a brain purifier.

Utah lawmakers always want to know what is “the biggest bang for the buck,” so let’s put this in economic terms. Classroom air filters would provide greater education cost/benefit, in some cases far greater, than other interventions such as a 30% reduction in class size, “high dose tutoring,” increasing family income with an earned income tax credit or the Head Start program.

For a fraction of the cost of one new high school, every classroom in the state could be equipped with an effective air purifier. As important as buildings are, they cannot compensate for young brains inflamed, under biologic stress, and compromised by pollution.

Please let’s not have any lawmakers use this to jump to the conclusion that we don’t need more teachers, tutoring or Head Start. And don’t think for one minute that this idea provides an excuse for the Legislature to bully us into taking the one/two punch of future pollution — the dirty energy inland port and the Bear River Project.

But given the economic value of a quality education, even dismissing every consideration beyond economics, protecting the brains of Utah’s school children should be a “no brainer,” even for those lawmakers tempted to only see dollar signs as the measure of Utah’s future and quality of life.

Dr. Brian Moench

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and author of the nonfiction book, “Death by Corporation: The Killing of Humankind in the Age of Monster Corporations”.