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Prenatal Air Pollution Exposure Can Affect Your Child Academically

drawing of little girl walking to school with smog in the background

Verywell / Madeline Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • A study shows that pregnant moms’ exposure to air pollution can impact their child academically.
  • Pollutants can diminish the child’s inhibitory skills.
  • Steps to avoid breathing in harmful pollutants are necessary for mothers who are expecting.

Air pollution can cause a litany of problems for adults and children including the progression of asthma, lung cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. A new study shows that air pollution can even lead to problems before a child is born.

Published in Environmental Research, the study finds that exposure to pollutants may impact a child’s ability to exercise self-control, which can cause problems with academic achievement.

About the Study

Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center conducted the study. They began the extensive experiment by starting to test pregnant mothers as early as 1998.

Participants included more than 700 Black and Latina women recruited from obstetrics and gynecological clinics in New York. Mothers received an air monitoring backpack, and researchers were able to test their air quality with the information that was collected.

They then followed the progress of the children once they were born. For the 200 children included in this analysis, researchers tested the academic progress of the children into their teen years, along with testing their inhibitory control, which is their ability to resist natural impulses.

For example, when children are asked to look at a square, but then are asked to say the word “circle,” this tests their ability to resist the natural inclination to call it a square.

The study showed that children who had increased prenatal exposure to air pollutants not only had greater difficulties academically but they also were less able to exercise inhibitory skills.

Amy Margolis, PhD

We show a pathway from exposure through inhibitory control to achievement problems which may provide novel ways for teachers to intervene by focusing on inhibitory control in addition to reading skills.

— Amy Margolis, PhD

This is the first study to link pollution, inhibitory control, and achievement. Prior studies have linked air pollution with each problem separately.

“We show a pathway from exposure through inhibitory control to achievement problems which may provide novel ways for teachers to intervene by focusing on inhibitory control in addition to reading skills,” says Amy Margolis, PhD, associate professor of medical psychology in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and lead author of the study. 

What Do the Findings Mean?

While the Environmental Protection Agency notes that air quality and environment can have a detrimental impact on students’ performance academically, this latest study takes it a step further, incorporating the impact of self-control.

The results of the study highlight the importance that environment has on a child, even before the child is born. And that impact can have long-lasting consequences.

“The study found that children who were exposed to higher levels of air pollutants during the prenatal period were more likely to have impairments in spelling, comprehension, and math later in life, along with issues with inhibitor control. This is significant because it shows that air pollution can have harmful downstream effects on children in the future,” explains Armeen Poor, MD, assistant professor of medicine at New York Medical College, pulmonary & critical care physician, and director of critical care at Metropolitan Hospital.

When a child has difficulty learning or is experiencing academic challenges, it may not be as simple as the work is too difficult or there might be a learning disability. Environmental issues may also be at play.

Prevention and Next Steps

Preventing issues with prenatal air pollution before they start is a critical part of helping to avoid problematic outcomes for children. Education and awareness are key factors.

Pregnant mothers can proactively put measures in place to inhale cleaner air and create a healthier outcome for themselves and their babies. Here are a few steps moms who are expecting can take.

  • Avoid spending a lot of time near busy roadways, especially with increased traffic.
  • Check the air quality in the area through phone apps and websites.
  • Refrain from smoking and don’t inhale second-hand smoke.
  • Speak with a healthcare provider if there are any concerns about air pollution in the area.

Jay Lee, MD, MPH

When a learning problem is identified, focusing academic interventions on strengthening aspects of self-regulation and inhibitory control may be effective at improving academic performance.

— Jay Lee, MD, MPH

If a child is already dealing with academic challenges, educators may want to go beyond the problem, and potentially start at the source.

“When a learning problem is identified, focusing academic interventions on strengthening aspects of self-regulation and inhibitory control may be effective at improving academic performance,” states Jay W. Lee, MD, MPH, family physician in Orange County, CA.

The ability to consider the inputs that are regulating a child’s behavior both inside and outside the classroom can go a long way toward helping that child achieve academic success.

“This study highlights the importance of considering all aspects of a child’s environment, including exposures to potential environmental toxicants, in assessing their learning style and abilities. Considering the child’s inhibitory skills may be an important step in designing interventions for learning,” concludes Kimberly Yolton, PhD, professor of pediatrics and environmental and public health sciences, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

What This Means For You

It’s important for pregnant mothers to take care of their health. This includes taking prenatal vitamins and ensuring proper nutrition. As the study shows, it also includes avoiding exposure to harmful toxins and paying attention to air quality alerts. Breathing clean air can make a big difference in your health and the health of your baby, both now and in the future.

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  2. Margolis AE, Ramphal B, Pagliaccio D, et al. Prenatal exposure to air pollution is associated with childhood inhibitory control and adolescent academic achievement. Environ Res. 2021;202:111570. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2021.111570