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Air Pollution Negatively Affects Children’s Development

Written by Bobby Zhu ‘26

Edited by Jason Johnston ‘23

When one thinks of children, often the image of delighted kids playing on a playground or kids running around a park playing tag is conjured. We think about our future, how one day these children will rise up, taking responsibility for themselves and for the world. Never do we think about how children are being impacted by an unseen enemy: air pollution.

On average, there are “8,424 schools (7.3%) located within 100 meters of a major roadway” and “8,555 (7.5%) schools located 100 to 250 m from a major roadway” in the United States [1]. Essentially, more than 10% of schools are located in close proximity to areas of pollution. The fact that many students (about 6.4 million) go to schools every day located near areas of poor air quality is concerning [1].

But why are they so close to the roads? Two considerable factors are the affordability of property next to major roadways and the ease with which parents can drop their children off for school [2]. By building schools next to a major road, money can be allocated to other projects while also providing parents the opportunity to send their children to school quickly.

Yet, the downside to these schools being located near roadsis the air quality that children breathe in. The metals that break off of vehicles when they brake or have tire wear, like copper, iron, antimony, tin, barium, and zinc, linger in the air that students who are close to highways can breathe in [3]. It’s basically like smoking but without the ability to choose whether or not to do it. Instead, because school is mandatory, these children have to suffer the consequences of attending a school close to major roadways.

When children breathe in worse air quality, damage to their pulmonary system and even some cognitive impairments occur. The most prevalent pulmonary disease is asthma. Childhood asthma occurs in 1 in 12 children and breathing in car smoke and other pollutants increases the likelihood of obtaining asthma [4]. Smog increases the amount of ground ozone which is harmful to the respiratory system. Asthma is caused by airway hyperresponsiveness, obstruction, and mucus hyper-production [5]. Most of the time it is in response to allergens that cause the eosinophils, which are immune cells that cause inflammation, to overreact and produce too much histamine. This immune response then causes the muscles along the airway to hypertrophy, decreasing the size of the airway, making it harder to breathe. However, in the case of students facing highway pollution, their immune cells are actually doing the correct thing by secreting more mucus to trap the pollutants from harming the lung tissues. Yet, when more mucus is secreted from the mucus-producing cells lining the airways, there is less space for the air to travel which results in shortness of breath.

Another effect of poor air quality is cognitive damage. According to research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, students performed worse on days when air particulate matter was higher [6]. This statistic brings to light a possible connection between academic performance and pollution. In fact, research has shown that very young children who grew up with heavy particulate matter in the air are “losing as many as 2.63 points on those exams for every 2 micrograms per cubic meter of pollution exposure” [7]. What’s worrying about these two pieces of data is that schools are supposed to be places where children learn and develop. Yet, the fact that students are scoring lower than what they should be scoring defeats the purpose of the school.

The particulate matter in the air crosses from the lungs to the blood which can travel up to the brain, according to Dr. Jennifer Weuve [8]. Inhaling poor air quality not only causes damage to lung tissue but can diffuse into the blood and infect the brain. Another researcher, Dr. Nelson, found that there were increased levels of cytokines, or cell-signaling molecules that regulate the inflammatory response, in the brains of mice which led to increased inflammation [8]. Increased brain swelling is dangerous due to the fact that the skull may not have enough space in it to accommodate the areas of swelling, which can reduce the amount of oxygen the brain receives [9]. With less oxygen in the brain, a person would feel more tired and it would be harder for them to focus. Not only does the brain swell, but there are also fewer spines on the tips of neurons in the brain region. The spines of the neurons correlate to memory with fewer spines equating to a worse memory-retaining ability [8]. However, it is important to note that the mice in these experiments were subjected to extreme levels of pollution that are not usually found in areas where schools are built. Still, the possible dangers that this study invokes should not be taken lightly. The fact that mice’s brains can change as a result of air pollution is a warning that humans may suffer the same effect as well.

Therefore, it is important to consider the economic but also the biological impact of school locations. By choosing a proper location, children will not only benefit by challenging their minds but also have a healthy environment to grow in.



[1] Kingsley SL, Eliot MN, Carlson L, Finn J, MacIntosh DL, Suh HH, et al. Proximity of US schools to major roadways: A nationwide assessment [Internet]. Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology. U.S. National Library of Medicine; 2014 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:

[2] Proximity to highways affects long-term school performance [Internet]. State Smart Transportation Initiative. 2019 [cited 202 2Nov 27]. Available from:,make%20transportation%20easier%20for%20parents.

[3] Proximity to roads, no2, other air pollutants and ... - NCBI bookshelf [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 28]. Available from:

[4] Asthma in children [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2018 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:,0%2D17%20years%20have%20asthma.

[5] Kudo M, Ishigatsubo Y, Aoki I. Pathology of asthma [Internet]. Frontiers. Frontiers; 1AD [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:

[6] Does pollution drive achievement? the effect of traffic ... - NBER [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 28]. Available from:

[7] Martin, Victoria St. “Study Underscores That Exposure to Air Pollution Harms Brain Development in the Very Young.” Inside Climate News, Inside Climate News, 6 Aug. 2022,

[8] Weir K. Smog in our brains [Internet]. Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association; [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:,possibly%20even%20contribute%20to%20depression.

[9] Cerebral edema (brain swelling): Symptoms, causes, & treatment [Internet]. WebMD. WebMD; [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:,oxygen%20it%20needs%20to%20function.

[Image] Colbeck, I. (2022, September 13). Why air pollution in schools is such a big deal – and what to do about it. The Conversation. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from

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