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Children who breathe polluted air can fall behind in school, study finds

Small children living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to air pollution, which can harm their cognitive development, according to a study published Wednesday, as the Washington Post reported.  Increased exposure to airborne toxins during infancy, this research suggests, can reduce reading and math abilities and cause children to fall behind at school. While there are certainly other issues that affect school readiness, the study found that exposure to air pollutants accounted for a third of the impact compared with other factors.

It has long been established that poor communities are more often exposed to pollution than affluent communities, but this study, published in Science Advances, delves deeper into the impacts, exploring the intersection of class issues on early-childhood cognitive development, through the lens of air quality. In the study, researchers show the ways cognitive gaps are formed as early as 6 months and may be entrenched by age 2, long before children start school, said lead researcher Geoffrey Wodtke, associate director of the University of Chicago’s Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility.

“The study is showing that children born into high-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to many neurotoxic air pollutants, and that those differences in turn are linked with inequalities in early-childhood development, specifically reading and math abilities measured around the time of school entry,” Wodtke told the Washington Post.