Study: Reducing air pollution could improve children’s ability to learn

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Oct 08, 2020
By the Philips Foundation team
Global Action Plan, the Philips Foundation and the University of Manchester (UoM) reveal results from new modelling which suggests that maintaining lower air pollution levels by 20% could improve the development of a child’s working memory by 6.1%, the equivalent of four weeks extra learning time per year. The findings are part of a year-long research project, the Clean Air for Schools program, which was launched to investigate the impact of air pollution on children’s health and learning. 

To mark Clean Air Day 2020, the University of Manchester (UoM), on behalf of the coordinators of Clean Air Day, Global Action Plan, and the Philips Foundation, have published new modelling [1] demonstrating that maintaining lower indoor and outdoor air pollution (PM25 & NO2) levels could improve a child’s ability to learn. The model finds that maintaining lower air pollution levels in and around school grounds by 20% could enhance the development of a child’s working memory by 6%, the equivalent of four weeks extra learning time per year.

 

The findings are part of the Clean Air for Schools Programme, a year-long research project which looked at how air pollution and its effects on children can be tackled in schools across the UK & Ireland. Launched in October 2019, the Programme includes additional field research undertaken in 19 schools totalling approximately 6,000 students across Greater Manchester, looking into the most effective actions for reducing indoor and outdoor air pollution.

 

In addition to improving children’s health [2], the Programme’s latest findings from the UoM modelling show that reducing air pollution will also improve children’s ability to learn, supporting teachers who are already under pressure to ensure pupils regain lost education time during lockdown.

 

Air quality data by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) shows air pollution decreased by up to 40% on average across the UK in peak national lockdown during April and May 2020 compared to the same time last year [1]. In light of this, the campaigning group urges that it is viable to maintain a 20% reduction around school grounds through actions included in the Clean Air for Schools Framework. 

 

Actions include School Streets, which when enrolled in the London Borough of Hackney, one of the leading community grassroots initiative proactively tackling air pollution, traffic reduced by an average of 68%, the number of children cycling to school increased by 51% and vehicle emissions outside schools (NOx, PM10 and PM25) are down by 74% [2].

 

Based on the modelling by UoM, even a 20% increase in air pollution could stunt the development of a child’s working memory by up to four weeks per year. Up to 2,000 schools and nurseries are close to roads with air pollution above the baseline level of NO2 used in the model [3], meaning that at least 500,000 children are exposed to levels of pollution that would affect working memory.

 

But the impact is also felt at lower levels than the 40µg/m3 baseline and so many more thousands of pupils also stand to benefit from a reduction in pollution. In terms of PM25, the most recent national investigation found that 8,549 schools, colleges and nurseries are in places with pollution levels that are above WHO health limits [4], equating to at least 1.7 million children in these locations. However, the exact number of pupils held back by excessive pollution is unknown because there is no national monitoring system for air quality in schools.

Every child has the right to learn in a safe working environment which not only protects their health, but also safeguards their ability to learn and shape their future prospects.

Mark Leftwich

Director Personal Health at Philips UK&I

To encourage urgent action, campaigners including support from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution (APPG), National Education Union (NEU) and National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT), are calling on the government, local councils to guide schools in using the newly launched  “Clean Air for Schools Framework”.

 

“Every child has the right to learn in a safe working environment which not only protects their health, but also safeguards their ability to learn and shape their future prospects. It is imperative that we take immediate action to protect the futures of our children who have already experienced severe disruption to their learning over lockdown and cannot afford to be held back any further”, Mark Leftwich, Personal Health Director at Philips UK & Ireland, said. “As a society, we already have many practical tools at our disposal to tackle air pollution and with schools, parents and local authorities working together, we can put them into place today, ensuring this generation of schoolchildren have the best possible learning environments we can give them. We therefore urge the UK Government to encourage all schools to adopt the Clean Air for Schools Framework.”

 

The Clean Air for Schools Framework developed by Global Action Plan, the Philips Foundation and the UoM, is a free online tool that gives teachers, headteachers, parents and local authorities a bespoke blueprint of actions for tackling air pollution in and around the school. Its database of actions includes interventions that can be taken both inside and outside school grounds including implementing school streets, improving indoor ventilation and consolidating deliveries. At a time when schools are urgently reviewing their operations, implementing major changes to the movement of pupils and parents on their premises, the group is calling on all schools across the UK & Ireland to adopt and implement the framework, with support from local and national government.

 

All actions in the Clean Air for Schools Framework have been vetted by existing research, academic insights and in-school air quality testing by the University of Manchester and further refined in collaboration with teachers and students. Notably, in classroom research conducted at Russell Scott Primary School in Greater Manchester found that using an air purifier over a short period of time can reduce levels of indoor air pollution (PM25) by up to 30% in classrooms.

 

For the original press release of Philips UK&I, click here.

 

[1] The model, developed by the UoM, is based on results from a literature review, in particular a Spanish longitudinal study of air pollution and cognitive performance in primary school children, from which the researchers were able to estimate the impact of changes in outdoor air pollution (NO2) on the development of working memory.

[2] https://www.globalactionplan.org.uk/news/clean-air-day-charity-launches-the-clean-air-for-schools-framework

[3] Air quality data by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

[4] Hackney School Streets case study: https://news.hackney.gov.uk/traffic-to-be-banned-outside-40-schools-as-part-of-emergency-plan/  

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