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Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollution may Present Academic Challenges for Children

Children prone to increased levels of air pollution might be more likely to exhibit poor academic skills in early adolescence, which includes math skills, spelling and reading comprehension, and poor inhibitory control during late childhood.

Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollution may Present Academic Challenges for Children

Image Credit: Columbia University.

The challenges related to inhibition in late childhood were seen as a precursor to later air pollution-related academic issues. Interventions that focus on inhibitory control might help improve the results.

The findings of the study obtained by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center were reported in the Environmental Research journal.

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’. By compromising childhood inhibitory control, prenatal exposure to air pollution may alter the foundation upon which later academic skills are built.

Amy Margolis, PhD, Study First Author and Associate Professor of Medical Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Irving Medical Center

When evaluating student’s learning problems and formulating treatment plans, parents and teachers should consider that academic problems related to environmental exposures may require intervention focused on inhibitory control problems, rather than on content-related skill deficits, as is typical in interventions designed to address learning disabilities,” added Margolis.

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. Reducing levels of air pollution may prevent these adverse outcomes and lead to improvements in children’s academic achievement.

Julie Herbstman, PhD, Study Co-Author, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Director, CCCEH, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

The new results obtained are in line with previously achieved Columbia research findings, in which a DNA marker for PAH exposure was related to the modified development of ADHD symptoms and self-regulatory capacity.

As part of the research, nearly 200 children enrolled in a longitudinal cohort study in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx headed by CCCEH scientists were followed up. The team gathered measures of prenatal airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH, a significant component of air pollution) during the third trimester of pregnancy. This is the time when the fetus is highly exposed to environmental impacts.

The tests of inhibitory control were performed at about the age of 10 years and the academic achievement tests at or around 13 years.

Inhibitory Control and Learning

Upon learning fresh concepts, students often require overruling of a previous habit to inculcate a new rule into a skill. The students would require practice on this kind of inhibitory control, for instance, during the learning process, while reading a vowel, children learn the letter “a” with a short vowel sound “a as in apple” but a long sound when the consonant is followed by a “magic e” as in “rate.”

The study was financially supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New York Community Trust, Trustees of the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, and the John and Wendy Neu Foundation. Related grant numbers are: ES026239, ES030950, ES014393, ES018784, ES13163, ES08977, 5P50ES009600, ES09600/RD82702701, ES09600/RD832141, ES09600/RD834509, ES09600/RD83615401.

Journal Reference:

Margolis, A. E., et al. (2021) Prenatal exposure to air pollution is associated with childhood inhibitory control and adolescent academic achievement. Environmental Research.


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