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Air Quality: Pollution Affects Children’s GPAs, Researchers Say

Aug 31, 2015 03:09 PM EDT

Being exposed to air pollution affects children's school performance, according to researchers from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) who studied fourth and fifth graders in the El Paso Independent School District. Those exposed to increased amounts of motor vehicle emissions from cars, trucks and buses on roads and highways around their homes were more likely to have lower GPAs. The researchers found this to be the case even when they accounted for other factors known to influence school performance, said a statement

"There are two pathways that can help us to explain this association," co-author Dr. Sara E. Grineski, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at UTEP, said in the statement. "Some evidence suggests that this association might exist because of illnesses, such as respiratory infections or asthma. Air pollution makes children sick, which leads to absenteeism and poor performance in school. The other hypothesis is that chronic exposure to air toxics can negatively affect children's neurological and brain development."

Their study, recently published in Population and Environment, examined 1,895 fourth and fifth graders that were living in El Paso, Texas, and attending the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD). In addition to considering the children's grades in reading, language arts, math, social studies and science, the researchers also accounted for outside factors such as the family's income, household size, parent's education level, and if the child qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

"This isn't a phenomenon unique to EPISD," Grineski said in the statement. "What makes our study different is that we are actually studying kids in their home setting, but there's a body of literature where they have studied levels of air pollution at schools in California and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, instead of at children's homes. A study on the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that schools with higher levels of pollution have lower standardized test scores."

According to the release, the American Lung Association ranked El Paso eighth out of 277 metropolitan areas in the United States for annual particulate pollution in 2014. Timothy W. Collins, Ph.D., one of the study's researchers, said air quality is an important issue in El Paso and that trucks are the largest contributors to the city's air pollution.

"I am not sure that I would expect to find similar results in a place with considerably lower levels of air pollution," Collins, sociology and anthropology associate professor at UTEP, said in a statement. "El Paso is a great laboratory to examine questions of Hispanic health."

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