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Air Pollution Exposure Associated With Poor Academics In Childhood: Study

Elevated levels of air pollution may be linked to children developing poor academic skills in early adolescence.

WASHINGTON — Children exposed to increased levels of air pollution may be more likely to have poor inhibitory control during late childhood and academic difficulty in early adolescence, including spelling, reading comprehension, and math skills, a new study named “A Hierarchical Model of Inhibitory Control” suggested. 

Difficulty with inhibition in late childhood is found to be a precursor to later air pollution-related academic problems. Interventions that target inhibitory control might improve outcomes.

The study results 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 are published in the journal “Environmental Research.”

“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,” Amy Margolis, first author of the study, Ph.D., associate professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said.

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

“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.” 

 “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,” said Julie Herbstman, co-author of the study, Ph.D., Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) director, and associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School.

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

The study followed 200 children enrolled in a longitudinal cohort study in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx led by Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) researchers.

Researchers collected prenatal airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH, a major component of air pollution) during the third trimester of pregnancy, a period when the fetus is highly vulnerable to environmental factors. Tests of inhibitory control were administered at or around age ten, and tests of academic achievement, at or around age 13.

When students learn new concepts, they often need to override a previous habit to incorporate a new rule into a skill. 

The new findings align with prior Columbia research finding a DNA marker for PAH exposure was associated with altered development of self-regulatory capacity and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) symptoms. 

(With inputs from ANI)

(Edited by Ojaswin Kathuria and Nikita Nikhil)

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