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Air pollution and cognitive development in children

As COP 28 unfolds it is timely to consider aspects of the environmental crisis that are specifically relevant to the work of educational psychologists.

Opening to the reality of environmental impacts on children

One of Gifford’s (2011) psychologically based “dragons of inaction” is described in terms of temporal discounting. This is the belief that the effects of pollution will not impact until well into the future. Recent research findings contradict this belief. 

Increasing numbers of children are identified to present with Special Educational Needs in school. The reason for this increase is certainly multi-factorial. However, one factor rarely highlighted is the potentially destructive impact of exposure to air pollution, particularly nitrogen dioxide, on the development of children’s cognitive abilities. 

Effects of air pollution on working memory 

Sunyer and colleagues tracked the cognitive development of 2715 children over the course of one year. The children were aged between seven and ten, attending 39 schools in Barcelona. Children from deprived backgrounds were identified as at risk of cognitive difficulties, so as a means of controlling for this factor, schools were identified and paired due to having children from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Air pollutants associated with road traffic were measured in school courtyards and within the school building; these included black carbon and nitrogen dioxide. Children’s cognitive abilities were tested on four occasions during the year. Results were compared for children attending low-pollution and high-pollution schools. 

The researchers found that children attending highly polluted schools displayed a lower growth in all cognitive functions tested. In particular, working memory development was compromised. After a year, children in highly polluted schools displayed a statistically significant difference in the development of their working memory capacity. 

The working memory system comprises aspects of attention, phonological/ visual processing and mental manipulation. The capacity of this system should develop steadily in children before peaking in early adulthood. This system is vital for the development of literacy and numeracy skills. Working memory is frequently impaired in children who are diagnosed with a range of neurodevelopmental difficulties including dyslexia, dyscalculia, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Condition. 

The authors of the research urge caution in the interpretation of their results. Despite best efforts to control for the effects of socio-economic background it is always possible that this known risk factor may have contributed to the differences observed. However, it is important to consider the findings in the context of a recent systematic review and meta-analysis that has identified negative associations between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and aspects of cognitive development, particularly working memory. 

This adds to the broader understanding of the possible effects of air pollution on children, which also include associations with a heightened risk of self-harm as well as severe impacts on respiratory health

A different path is possible: a call to action for EPs

Professional guidance for EPs has strengthened the requirement to consider issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in their psychological formulations. For children attending inner-city schools in high-traffic zones, heightened exposure to air pollution represents a potential for inequity, in which their right to clean air, as recently emphasised by the United Nations, is not being respected. EPs are well placed to emphasise this systemic risk factor in their psychological formulations, in discussion with local authorities, schools and families. Highlighting this factor, and showcasing the relevant research, will help to intensify the demands for safer conditions for children. 

Some positive steps are already being taken, which could be built upon. A helpful development in some areas are “Park and Stride” initiatives. These schemes support parents to reduce emissions by parking at a walkable distance from the school and they have the additional benefit of supporting child health goals by increasing physical activity. ‘Living Streets’ have developed a guide for authorities/ schools who wish to develop this scheme. EPs, with well-established links to LAs and schools, are well situated to encourage, support and advise on the development of such healthy approaches. 

The long-term solution is a dramatic reduction in the total number of petrol/ diesel powered journeys taken. This requires significant public investment in electrified public transport systems and the comprehensive establishment of safe walkways and cycle lanes. This goal has begun to look more distant since the UK government declared a delay in their plans for achieving net-zero targets.

It is essential that elected representatives understand the potential harms to which this policy shift risks exposing children. It is equally important that MPs and councillors understand the strength of feeling behind the demand for better protection for children. EPs, LA staff, School Boards of Governors and Parents can contact their elected representatives to make these demands.

In preparation for his attendance at COP 28 Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, stated, “The only thing that is still lacking is political will”. EPs have skills of critical research analysis, knowledge of child development, skills of communication, collaboration and leadership. We can use these skills to invigorate the political will that is so desperately and dangerously lacking. 

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