Air Pollution Exposure Linked to Poor Academics in Childhood

Summary: Early-life exposure to high levels of air pollution was associated with poor inhibitory control during later childhood and poorer academic performance during adolescence.

Source: Columbia University

Children exposed to elevated levels of air pollution may be more likely to have poor inhibitory control during late childhood and poor academic skills in early adolescence, including spelling, reading comprehension, and math skills. Difficulty with inhibition in late childhood was found to be a precursor to later air pollution-related academic problems. Interventions that target inhibitory control might improve outcomes.

Results of the study 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,'” says first author Amy Margolis, PhD, associate professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “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,” Margolis adds.

“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,” says co-author Julie Herbstman, PhD, 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.”

This shows a child drawing with crayons
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 symptoms. Image is in the public domain

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 symptoms.

The study followed 200 children enrolled in a longitudinal cohort study in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx led by CCCEH researchers. Researchers collected measures of 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 insults. Tests of inhibitory control were administered at or around age 10 and tests of academic achievement, at or around age 13.

Inhibitory Control and Learning

When students learn new concepts, they often need to override a previous habit in order to incorporate a new rule into a skill. For example, when learning to read a vowel a child will learn that the letter a has a short vowel sound “a as in apple” but a long sound when the consonant is followed by a “magic e,” as in “rate.”

Funding: The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New York Community Trust, Trustees of the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, and the John and Wendy Neu Foundation provided funding for the research. Related grant numbers: ES026239, ES030950, ES014393, ES018784, ES13163, ES08977, 5P50ES009600, ES09600/RD82702701, ES09600/RD832141, ES09600/RD834509, ES09600/RD83615401.

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

About this pollution and neurodevelopment research news

Source: Columbia University
Contact: Tim Paul – Columbia University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Prenatal exposure to air pollution is associated with childhood inhibitory control and adolescent academic achievement” by Amy Margolis et al. Environmental Research


Prenatal exposure to air pollution is associated with childhood inhibitory control and adolescent academic achievement


Prenatal air pollution exposure is associated with reductions in self-regulation and academic achievement. Self-regulation has been separately linked with academic achievement. Understudied, however, are the contributions of pollution exposure to inhibitory control, a facet of self-regulation, and whether pollution-related inhibitory control deficits are associated with impairment in academic achievement.


Participants were recruited from a prospective birth cohort. Measures of prenatal airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) during the third trimester of pregnancy, inhibitory control (NEPSY Inhibition) at mean age = 10.4 years, and Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement-III at mean age = 13.7 were available for N = 200 participants. Multiple linear regression examined sex-dependent and sex independent associations among prenatal PAH, childhood inhibitory control, and academic achievement during adolescence, and whether childhood inhibitory control mediated associations between prenatal PAH and academic achievement during adolescence, controlling for ethnicity, maternal country of birth, language of prenatal interview, maternal marital status, maternal years of education, material hardship, quality of home caregiving environment, and early life stress.


Across all participants, higher prenatal PAH was significantly associated with worse spelling skills (WJ-III Spelling, β = −0.16, 95%Confidence Interval [CI]: 0.30, −0.02, p = .02). Trend level associations between higher prenatal PAH and worse reading comprehension (WJ-III Passage Comprehension, β = −0.13, 95%CI: 0.28, 0.01, p = .07) and math skills (WJ-III Broad Math, β = −0.11, 95%CI: 0.25, 0.03, p = .11) were detected. Across all participants, higher PAH was significantly associated with worse inhibitory control (β = −0.15, 95%CI: 0.29,-0.01 p = .03). Better inhibitory control was significantly associated with better reading comprehension (WJ-III Passage Comprehension, β = 0.22, 95%CI: 0.09, 0.36, p < .002) and math skills (WJ-III Broad Math Index, β = 0.32, 95%CI: 0.19, 0.45, p < .001), and trend level associations with better spelling skills (WJ-III Spelling, β = 0.12, 95%CI: 0.02, 0.26, p = .10). Inhibitory control significantly mediated PAH-related achievement effects for Passage Comprehension (β = −0.61, 95%CI: 1.49, −0.01) and Broad Math Index (β = −1.09, 95%CI: 2.36, −0.03).


Higher prenatal PAH exposure and lower childhood inhibitory control were associated with worse spelling, passage comprehension, and math in adolescence. Notably, childhood inhibitory control mediated PAH exposure-related effects on achievement in adolescents. Identifying these potential exposure-related phenotypes of learning problems may promote interventions that target inhibitory control deficits rather than content specific deficits.

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