John Macfarlane: Free federal money can help make our kids smarter

Air pollution affects brain development at every stage of life, and air purifiers can help.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Over 300 local students from the Madeleine Choir School and Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts marched up State Street to meet in the Capitol rotunda for a clean air, Feb. 4, 2016.

As a neurosurgeon, I understand some of the intricacies of the human brain and I work to protect the human brain from harm. Air pollution can significantly harm the brain at every stage of life, from the early stages of in-utero brain development when the brain rapidly develops, to the frail and fragile brain of the elderly. It recently has been estimated that 20% of Alzheimer’s is due to air pollution.

Utahns face more than our share of air pollution threats. Global warming is increasing ground-level ozone. Smoke from forest fires, dust from the Great Salt Lake, gravel pits and mines and vehicle exhaust create air pollution including ultrafine particles known as PM 2.5. These particles are so small that they can bypass the brain’s blood-brain barrier, an ingenious mechanism that protects the brain from infection, cancer and other toxins.

These ultrafine PM 2.5 and smaller particles can enter the nose and latch onto the olfactory nerve, which has a direct path to the brain. These particles often carry heavy metals, which can trigger inflammation. Chronic inflammation in the brain has been found to be associated with accelerated aging of the brain leading to neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, MS and ALS.

Air pollution has implications for all of us, including school children. Gaining entrance through the nose, lungs and blood stream, pollution particles contaminate the brain in large numbers, millions per gram of brain tissue. Autopsy studies indicate we are all affected.

Within 30 minutes of inhaling diesel exhaust, at levels comparable to freeway traffic or riding in school buses, brains of healthy volunteers show inflammation and a cortical stress response which is evident in their EEG tracings, a brain wave measurement tool. The stress lingers long after exposure ends. In similar real-life situations, young students may arrive at school already with a significant learning disadvantage having been exposed to air pollution.

Corresponding clinical studies show that pollution inhaled by school children on their way to school and when outside at recess at school impairs their working memory on that very same day. A recent study of third graders in Salt Lake City found that high frequency peak exposures to air pollution led to decreased math and English language arts proficiency. Pollution impaired scores can limit career attainment levels and career earnings.

In adults, air pollution can impair cognition, judgment and executive functioning. 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 make more assembly line errors when exposed to higher levels of outdoor pollution, even those 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.

We can halt these terrible effects to the brain. Recent studies have demonstrated that air quality improvements slow age-related decline in brain function of the elderly.

Children who live near sources of industrial pollution improve their test scores, and reduce school absenteeism and suspensions when those smokestacks are shuttered.

Simple classroom air purifiers can remove many air pollutants including PM 2.5, even when baseline pollution is well below the EPA’s standards. This reduction results in improved performance of school children, even more than standard interventions such as reducing class size by 30%, “high dose” tutoring, increasing family income with an earned income tax credit, or the Head Start program.

For three years Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment has been asking our Utah lawmakers to help our vulnerable children by purchasing air purifiers for all the school classrooms in the state. When the pandemic hit, the need for air purifiers to help sequester reduce transmission of COVID-19 added urgency to our request.

Here’s the free money part…

From a recent federal grant, Utah now has the funding to purchase air purifiers without Utah taxpayers or schools picking up the tab. UPHE has partnered with the Utah State Health Department to implement placing these air purifiers in as many K-12 classrooms as possible — public, private and charter schools alike. Not only will these air purifiers make students and teachers healthier, decrease COVID and other disease transmission and reduce student and teacher absenteeism, they will also improve student performance. When so many students have fallen behind because of the pandemic, this has become even more important. And in the long term, air purifiers will also contribute to better brain development.

This federal money must be used by July 2023, or it will be withdrawn. UPHE will be contacting every school district and charter school in the state to make them aware of the program and its unique benefits, encouraging school administrators to sign up, and teachers to use them daily once they arrive. We encourage parents and teachers to get involved and make sure their schools and districts to sign up for the program.

We ask all parents, grandparents and teachers to contact their local school and school board to advocate for air purifiers for our Utah students. Every Utah student deserves the best possible environment for brain development and academic success.

To make sure your school gets these air purifiers, go to our website, https://www.uphe.org/free-air-purifiers-for-utah-schools/ or email brandi@uphe.org

John Macfarlane

John Macfarlane, M.D., is a neurosurgeon and board member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.